MANHATTAN (CN) - Sotheby's cannot toss claims that its auction catalog included a 10th century statue that had been looted from a sacred Cambodian temple, a federal judge ruled.
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.
Both statues were severed at their ankles, leaving the feet remaining on the pedestals. Authorities have not sought to seize the sister statue, Bhima, from its current home at the Norton Simon Museum of California.
An unspecified British auction house allegedly knew the Duryodhana was looted when it sold the statue to a Belgian businessman in 1975. That businessman left the statue to his wife, claimant Ruspoli Di Poggio Suasa, after he died in 2000.
Ten years later, Suasa consigned the Duryodhana to Sotheby's, which imported it to the United States in April 2010. The Manhattan-based auction house retained the statue even after it called off plans for an auction the following year at the request of the Cambodian government.
After the U.S. government called for its seizure almost exactly one year ago, U.S. District Judge George Daniels quickly issued a restraining order that stopped Sotheby's from selling or moving the piece.
Suasa and Sotheby's hoped to dismiss the lawsuit by denying that Cambodia properly declared ownership of the statue. They also disputed whether they could have known if the artifact were stolen.
Noting that prosecutors provided detailed allegations to the contrary, Judge Daniels refused to close the case Thursday.
Summarizing the allegations, the 18-page order states: "Sotheby's was aware of the origin of the statue, that it had been broken off at the ankles and it first appeared on the international art market during a period of rampant looting of antiquities from Koh Ker," referring to the region home to the sacred temples.
"Sotheby's has a particular expertise in the works of India and Southeast Asia, including extensive experience in the sale of Khmer artifacts," Daniels wrote. "Sotheby's consulted regularly with the collector and knew him to be the original seller of the statue in 1975. The collector knew that the statue had been looted from Koh Ker, and had trouble selling it in 1975 because many prospective buyers were unwilling to purchase it due to its lack of legitimate provenance and missing feet. Subsequent to import, Sotheby's was expressly advised that the Cambodians had clear evidence that the statue was definitely stolen. Sotheby's is alleged to have provided inaccurate provenance information and omitted information about the collector who acquired the statue in Sotheby's communications with potential buyers, the Kingdom of Cambodia and United States law enforcement."
Sotheby's spokesman Andrew Gully emphasized in a statement that the judge had not yet authenticated these claims.
"The court's decision defers to another day all the key questions: whether Cambodia declared ownership of the statue with the clarity required by due process; whether the good faith purchase of the statue in 1975 defeats Cambodia's claim, and whether Sotheby's knew the statue belonged to Cambodia," Gully wrote. "When the court ultimately addresses these questions, we continue to expect to prevail on each."
Meanwhile, Judge Daniels allowed the government to revise its complaint to add facts it learned from its ongoing investigation.
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