MANHATTAN (CN) – A 10th century statue that was allegedly looted from a Hindu temple in Cambodia can remain in Sotheby’s pending the resolution of forfeiture proceedings, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
Duryodhana, which translates to “difficult to fight with,” is a sandstone statue depicting an antagonist of the Mahabharata, an epic battle described in “The Bhagavad Gita.”
Prosecutors believe that Duryodhana and a statue of his arch-nemesis, Bhima, were looted from the Prasat Chen temple in Cambodia in the 1960s or 1970s, as war raged in the neighboring Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge rose to power.
“These two statues once stood face to face, depicted at the moment of preparation for their epic battle, as chronicled in ‘The Bhagavad Gita,'” the complaint states. “The site of this sculptural group is now surrounded by rubble from the building and only the pedestals on which they stood remain.”
Authorities have not sought to seize the sister statue, Bhima, from its current home at the Norton Simon Museum of California.
Both statues were severed at their ankles, leaving the feet remaining on the pedestals.
A Flemish collector who bought the statue from a British auction house in 1975 consigned it to Sotheby’s, which imported Duryodhana to the United States in April 2010.
Though it called off plans for an auction the following year at the request of the Cambodian government, Sotheby’s retained possession of the statue.
After the U.S. government called for its seizure on April 4, U.S. District Judge George Daniels issued a restraining order the next day, stopping Sotheby’s selling or moving it.
Daniels refused, however, to transfer the antiquity to the government Wednesday.
“Right now, I want to know if the status quo is sufficient,” he said, explaining that he did not want the statue to suffer damage in needless transfers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Levin reluctantly conceded that the status quo was sufficient for now.
At the start of the hearing, Levin hoped to convince the judge that Sotheby’s did not presently have standing to contest the forfeiture, which names the statue as the defendant, not the auction house.
Noting that Sotheby’s contests the government’s allegations, Daniels said he could not “blindly accept” that the auction house knew the Duryodhana was looted and illegally imported.
“I don’t have any specifics for me to conclude that was specifically the case,” Daniels said.
Levin referred the judge to emails from the 27-page complaint, attributed to an unnamed scholar that The New York Times later identified as Emma C. Bunker, a research consultant at the Denver Art Museum.
Government lawyers say Sotheby’s consulted with Bunker to write the catalog entry for the statue and give a lecture about it, but Bunker expressed concerns about the sale.
“I think it would be hugely unwise to offer the Dvarpala publicly, and I would not really feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances,” Bunker allegedly wrote, using the Sanskrit word for a giant statue used in Hindu architecture. “It is also quite possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back.”
But the scholar subsequently reconsidered that position based on the fact that Cambodia was not likely to ask for the statute’s return and the sale was probably legal, according to the complaint.
Bunker also allegedly warned that telling Cambodia’s minister of culture about he auction “would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
In an email dated the same day, she added that Sotheby’s should be prepared for bad press “from academics and ‘temple-huggers’ not from Cambodians.”
In a preview of Sotheby’s case, WilmerHale attorney Peter Neiman told the judge that the scholar was not a Sotheby’s employee, and that prosecutors left out exculpatory follow-up emails.
“It’s a much more complicated case,” Neiman said. “Sotheby’s position is that it acted in complete good faith.”
Any party seeking to make a verified claim on the statue must do so before June 5.
In the meanwhile, government attorneys and Sotheby’s will conduct discovery to prepare for a hearing on June 20.
Levin, the government attorney, said that a Cambodian ambassador requested that the U.S. government initiate the forfeiture action.