Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Norton Simon Art Foundation and their 'Koh Ker' Statue

In Koh Ker, northern Cambodia, is a temple, dating from the mid-900s. Flanking an entrance there, were a pair of sandstone statues depicting scowling athlete-combatants in intricate headdresses positioned in battle-ready stances. The pair of sculptures ('five feet tall and weighing 250 pounds'), were still in position in old photos of the temple. The site however was one of those plundered in the 1970s amid the chaos of power struggle and genocide, when the Khmer Rouge ravaged Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Looters hacked their way into long-inaccessible temples, pillaged priceless antiquities and sold them to Thai and Western collectors. All that remains on site now of these two statues are the broken off feet and the heavy pedestals. The statues have both left the country under unclear circumstances, and both are now in America.

One of them was offered for sale in Sotheby's New York in March 2011. The sale was stopped and the object is the subject of an investigation. New York Times journalists Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal indicate one possible manner in which the Sotheby's matter could soon be resolved:
Working with the Unesco office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia has asked Sotheby’s to bargain with a wealthy Hungarian antiquities collector who has offered to pay $1 million for the statue and present it to Cambodia as an act of good will. “There is no question the statue was looted in the final stages of the war,” said the collector, Istvan Zelnik, a former Hungarian diplomat in the region who has visited Koh Ker. His own collection forms the Zelnik Istvan Museum of Southeast Asian Gold in Budapest. “The best solution is that I purchase it for purposes of donation,” Mr. Zelnik added.
The other statue is also in America. In 2007 archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau located it as being the one on display since 1980 at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. Although drilled for the insertion of two massive metal rods for display, the lower portion of the knocked-off statue matches perfectly the pedestal from which it had been detached and which still stands in situ on the site. This statue also "surfaced" on the market, this time in New York, in 1975. Norton Simon, an industrialist and collector, reportedly bought it in that year from a leading Madison Avenue antiquities dealer, William H. Wolff.

Koh Ker statue, Norton Simon Art Foundation M.1980.15.S (Photo © 2012 Norton Simon Art Foundation)

There is a 1925 French colonial law declaring all antiquities from Cambodia’s temples to be “part of the national domain” and “the exclusive property of the state.” This law seems to have remained in force after Cambodian independence in 1953:
Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and the Cambodia scholar who dug out the law, said it had been analyzed by three French-speaking lawyers conversant in cultural heritage litigation and by [Anne] LeMaistre[, the Unesco representative in Phnom Penh]. All four say it “nationalizes ownership of Cambodian cultural artifacts.” If international legal authorities and American civil courts agree, the law could establish 1925, rather than 1993, as the dividing point after which Cambodian artifacts taken without government permits can be treated as stolen property.
Archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau says the relics were looted in the early 1970s. He said French records in Paris indicate that the statues were in place in 1939, and that the Koh Ker temple was thickly covered by jungle and inaccessible by road until it became a military staging area for Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces in the 1970s.

The New York Times journalists Mashberg and Blumenthal sum up the antiquities trade and the Koh Ker affair thus:

The quiet tussle over the relic reveals the swampy terrain of auctioning antiquities with incomplete or disputed pedigrees. Sellers with a good-faith belief in their ownership rights enter a landscape in which ethics and regulations are evolving, governments are increasingly assertive, and lawyers versed in arcane statutes are as necessary as jungle guides. “We live in a different world, and what was acceptable 50 years ago is no longer so,” said Matthew F. Bogdanos, a Marine Corps Reserve colonel and a lawyer, [...] “Whatever the letter of the law may state, in the end you have to ask yourself, ‘Does the item pass the smell test?’ ”
One collector is putting a million dollars of his own money into doing the right thing and sending pone of the pair back to the country from which it was stolen against a backdrop of slaughter and destruction - after all what collector would want a 'blood antiquity' on display in their collection? Perhaps the Norton Simon Art Foundation might consider the time has come to make a similar gesture.

Source: Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal, 'Mythic Warrior Is Held Captive in an International Art Conflict', The New York Times, February 28, 2012

Vignette, two trunkless legs of stone alone in the jungle stand (after Agnes Dherbeys, The New York Times),

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