Attn: Calif. () -
Attn: Calif. () —
Tom Mashberg contributed reporting.
c.2012 New York Times News Service
The Cambodian government has asked the United States to help it recover a 10th-century Khmer sandstone statue from the Norton Simon Museum in California that it claims was looted from a Cambodian temple complex during the country's political upheavals in the 1970s.
The request was revealed in U.S. district court in Manhattan on Thursday, during a case involving a matching statue that the U.S. government has sought to impound from Sotheby's. The sculptures, each five feet tall and around 600 pounds, depict mythical warriors. The one at the Norton Simon, in Pasadena, Calif., has been on display since 1980, and although Cambodian authorities have long known it was there, they had not sought its return before now.
In the case involving the Sotheby's statue, on Thursday, Judge George B. Daniels cast doubt on whether the government could prevail in its effort to seize the work based on the filings it has made.
''This isn't the strongestcase of knowledge of stolen property and ownership by clear and unambiguous language," Daniels said. He said the government had "significant hurdles to overcome" and that he would rule in 30 to 60 days on a motion by Sotheby's lawyers to dismiss the case.
On Friday, a Cambodian government spokesman confirmed the request for repatriating the statue at the Norton Simon. "We have asked the United States government to help bring both statues back home," the spokesman, Phay Siphan, said by phone from Phnom Penh. (The Cambodian government has also requested the return of two life-size statues from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Leslie C. Denk, a spokeswoman for the Norton Simon, said, "We have not been contacted by the Cambodian government." But the museum had earlier released a statement acknowledging that the Sotheby's case "has spurred interest in a similar Khmer statue owned by the Norton Simon Art Foundation."
It said it purchased the statue on Sept. 13, 1976, from New York dealer William H. Wolff, that it had been shown to representatives of the Cambodian government and that "in more than three decades of ownership, the foundation's ownership of the sculpture has never been questioned."
According to art historians, both sandstone statues once stood facing each other at the Prasat Chen temple complex in Koh Ker, some 60 miles northeast of the more famous Hindu temples at Angkor Wat. When and how they were removed remains in dispute. But their sheared-off feet remain on site.
According to court papers, the Sotheby's statue was purchased in 1975 from the British auction house Spink by the husband of a Belgian woman, identified as Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, for the equivalent today of about $900,000. The statue was scheduled to be auctioned in March 2011, with a catalog estimate of $2 million to $3 million, but was pulled at the last minute after Cambodian officials sent a letter saying it had been "illegally removed." It remains in limbo at Sotheby's.
After an investigation by U.S. customs agents, the government filed a civil suit against Sotheby's in April seeking to seize the statue as being knowingly illegally imported. Sotheby's fended off immediate forfeiture with a court challenge in April, augmented by later claims that questioned any proof that the statue had been looted or that clear Cambodian laws applied.
Sotheby's lawyer, Peter G. Neiman, also questioned why Cambodia had never previously sought the California statue and cited a letter in which a Cambodian official asserted that the work "now belongs to the Norton Simon."
But Sarah Paul, a government lawyer, said Cambodia has not relinquished its claim on that statue.
''We are investigating before filing a forfeiture complaint," she said.
A second prosecutor, Alexander Wilson, said was "continuing to look" into how the Norton Simon obtained the statue.