Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sothebys insists Cambodian statue was not stolen

Sotheby's said it had been in "active discussions" with the U.S. and Cambodian governments over the ancient Cambodian statue of a warrior ("Duryodhana") which was taken stolen from the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Cambodia and that the result was "disappointing".

The 10th century statue was broken off at the base and apparently smuggled out of Cambodia early in the 1970s. The government of Cambodia regards the statue as stolen, and wants it back. It had been consigned to Sotheby’s for sale by a Belgian collector and had been set for auction in New York in March 2011 but was abruptly pulled from the market at the last minute after Cambodia claimed ownership. Strong evidence indicates it was plundered during the upheavals of the Cambodian civil war in the 1970s. Its pedestal — and that of a matching statue now at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. — was found at Koh Ker, a site about 80 miles northeast of Angkor Wat. The claim that the 'Belgian-collector/Sotheby's' statue was looted during the Cambodian civil war rests partly on findings by a French archaeologist, Eric Bourdonneau, who reported that the work had been seen in place as recently as the 1960s, that a road built after 1965 provided the first easy access to the site, and that the piece did not appear on the art market until its first known sale in Britain in 1975.
Sotheby's denied doing anything wrong, saying it "strongly disputes the allegations". "This sculpture, which had been in the possession of a good faith owner who obtained good title almost 40 years ago, was legally imported into the United States and all relevant facts were openly declared," the auction house said. "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 1,000 years nor is there any such evidence in this complaint," it added.
It's legal innit? What does it mean "in good faith"? How can you buy something, identifiably (by style) from Cambodia, freshly broken off at the bottom, from a country where the news is full of reports every day of the brutal war going on there? How can it be a "good faith" purchase if the seller does not say how and when it left the country where it was obtained? Where there is no export licence? I fail to see how that actually qualifies as a good faith purchase any more than a cheap IPad in its original box ("only a little shop soiled") but no documentation bought from a guy ("he looked decent enough, in a suit, not a hoodie") two days after the London riots.

Norton Simon had no illusions what he was buying. According to an article in the "Chasing Aphrodite" blog he was under no illusions about the illicit origins of his impressive collection of Asian art which today is a highlight of his Pasadena museum. As a serious US collector it seems he felt himself above such niceties as laws:
In a 1973 article headlined “Norton Simon Bought Smuggled Idol,” the New York Times asked Simon about a bronze Hindu deity of Siva he had just purchased for $1 million. India claimed it had been ripped from a temple and smuggled out of the country. His answer:
“Hell, yes, it was smuggled,” said Mr. Simon in a telephone interview. “I spent between $15- and $16-million over the last two years on Asian Art and most of it was smuggled. I don’t know whether it was stolen.”
The same would appear to apply to the Khmer temple guardian that he bought three years later from a  New York dealer William H. Wolff.
So, we are asked to believe that the worldly Norton Simon accepted that he was buying illicit goods, but the more naive Belgian collector who was active over the other side of the Atlantic really had no idea. Can one have "good title" to such an object without having any document which shows that at the time of purchase permission had been given for the sawing (or breaking) off of an element of temple sculpture and exporting it? Or did the buyer assume that since there was a war going on, no such document was necessary?

Ralph Blumental, Tom Mashberg, 'Officials Are Set to Seize Antiquity', New York Times April 4, 2012.

Brigitte Dusseau, 'Sothebys insists Cambodian statue was not stolen', , April 13, 2012

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