MANHATTAN (CN) - Federal prosecutors have filed suit to help Cambodia reclaim a 10th century sandstone statue from the Sotheby's auction house.
The Duryodhana was stolen from the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Cambodia as war raged in the neighboring Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, according to the complaint.
"The Koh Ker site is of great significance from a religious, historical, and artistic perspective," according to the complaint, which explains that the city was an ancient capital that was once home to "a vast complex of sacred monuments."
Prasat Chen, a sandstone temple at Koh Ker dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, was looted in the 1960s or 1970s, prosecutors say.
Among the temple's lost artifacts are two large sandstone statues, the Duryodhana and the Bhima.
"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."
Looters severed the statues at their ankles, and the feet remain on the pedestals.
"The Duryodhana is of extraordinary value as a piece of the cultural heritage of the Cambodian people," the complaint states. "A spectacular piece and unique in so many ways, it is a triumph of creativity and innovation. It represents a unique moment in the religious and artistic history of ancient Cambodia, when the great themes of the Indian epic texts, such as the 'The Bhagavad Gita,' became integrated into the temple space, and were represented not simply in bas-relief, but rather in full round. Shown precisely at the moment where he leaps into the air, the Duryodhana is a testament to the skill of the ancient sculptors, who took an extraordinary risk in giving the illusion of a being in movement and suspension."
Prosecutors say they traced the statue to Sotheby's, which was consigned to auction the piece for a Flemish collector in 2010. The collector allegedly bought the statute from a British auction house in 1975.
After Sotheby's imported the Duryodhana into the United States, it pulled the statue from its auction on request by the Cambodian government but never released possession of it.
The forfeiture complaint was filed Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and the New York Office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations. It names several reasons for Sotheby's to forfeit the Duryodhana, including the allegation that the statue constitutes stolen property introduced into the United States in violation of U.S. law.
Sotheby's denies the government's allegations and says it is "disappointing" that litigation will interrupt efforts to resolve the matter "amicably."
"This sculpture, which had been in the possession of a good faith owner who obtained good title almost forty years ago, was legally imported into the United States and all relevant facts were openly declared," the auction house said in a statement. "We have researched this sculpture extensively and have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left Cambodia over the last one thousand years nor is there any such evidence in this complaint."
"We have been in active discussions for a year with both the US and Cambodian governments and we had assured them that we would voluntarily maintain possession of this statue," the statement continues. "Cambodia has always expressed its desire to resolve this situation amicably, and it is therefore disappointing that this action has been filed, interrupting the cooperative discussions and efforts that had been ongoing to achieve a solution acceptable to both sides."
Though purportedly open to criticism, Sotheby's took offense to the government's case. "Condemning a public effort to responsibly conduct a sale process for an object that has been out of its original site for an unknown period of anywhere from forty to a thousand years, inevitably drives those owners of antiquities toward private transactions - an outcome deeply disadvantageous to any and all who claim to be on the side of sensitive and careful handling of this material," according to the statement. "Sotheby's remains deeply committed to being a force for responsible advocacy in this area, and we intend to defend this action vigorously."
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