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A “Priceless Piece of Cambodia’s Cultural History” Has Been Returned After 40 Years

by Hrag Vartanian on May 7, 2014

and (left) the Bhima (aka Temple Wrestler) (c. 925–50 CE), sandstone, 61-3/4 in. (156.8 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation, M.1980.15.S ( Bhima courtesy the Norton Simon Art Foundation)

The Duryodhana (left) and the Bhima (aka Temple Wrestler) (c. 925–50 CE), sandstone, 61-3/4 in (156.8 cm), Norton Simon Art Foundation, M.1980.15.S (Duryodhana images courtesy US Immigration & Customs Enforcement, and the Bhima image courtesy the Norton Simon Art Foundation)

This week, we learned that two important Cambodian sandstone sculptures from the 10th century — one in the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and the other seized from Sotheby’s New York in 2012 — will be returned to the Kingdom of Cambodia after being looted in the 1970s.

The Duryodhana digitally reunited with its podium, which is at Cambodia's National Museum (image courtesy )

The Duryodhana digitally reunited with its podium, which is at Cambodia’s National Museum (image courtesy US Immigration & Customs Enforcement)

Yesterday, the Norton Simon Museum announced that they would be making a “gift” of the colossal sculpture, known as the Bhima, after nearly four decades on display in its institution. And today, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations announced the return of the Duryodhana, the companion sculpture to the Bhima, to the Kingdom of Cambodia. In 2012, we reported that the Duryodhana had been seized at Sotheby’s in New York.

The sculptures are believed to be from Koh Ker, the capital of the ancient Khmer empire in Cambodia. Both statues, which represent wrestlers, once stood guard at the Prasat Chen at Koh Ker. When the works are reunited in their home country, they are expected to form the centerpiece of a special exhibition at the Cambodian National Museum dedicated to the temple complex at Koh Ker. Cambodian authorities are still trying to recover all of the ancient sculptures (Arjuna, Balarama, Dhrishtadyumna, Krsna, Nakula, Sahadeva, and Yudhisthira) that flanked the Duryodhana and Bjima. So far they have successfully recovered three of the seven.

As part of the Duryodhana repatriation ceremony today in Manhattan, US Attorney Preet Bharara explained that the work was “a priceless piece of Cambodia’s cultural history” that was stolen over 40 years ago. “Once stolen, the Duryodhana should not have been for sale at any price. By bringing legal action to cause the return of the Duryodhana to the Kingdom of Cambodia, we have reaffirmed our commitment to ensuring that Manhattan does not become a Mecca for stolen art and antiquities. Everyone who sells, collects, or curates art should support doing what is right when it comes to repatriating priceless stolen artifacts,” he said.

According to legal documents filed about the Duryodhana, around 2007 a stone conservator examined the two pedestals of the Duryodhana and the Bhima and discovered that both still had the feet attached, as the statues were broken for removal at the ankles. The documents explain:

“The conservator engaged in archival and bibliographic research and located in a book a photograph of a Khmer statue at a museum in the United States … which appeared to match the Bhima’s feet.”

The conservator recorded his research in a paper dated May 2007. The findings were confirmed by another researcher two years later.

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A digital rendering of the Prasat Chen sculptures that shows the centrality of the Duryodhana and Bhima sculptures to the grouping (image courtesy US Immigration & Customs Enforcement)

One surprising note in the amended complaint for the Duryodhana states that in the 1970s an auction house based in the United Kingdom was aware that the sculpture was looted from Koh Ker, and representatives of the auction house “conspired with the Collector and the Thai Dealer to fraudulently obtain export licenses for the [Duryodhana] … and other antiquities to be shipped to the Auction House in the future.” The auction house is not identified.

Many Cambodian antiquities were looted from the country’s historic sites during the political turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s and funneled to international art markets through Thai brokers and contacts. The Duryodhana and the Bhima are believed to have been stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker in 1972.

The Duryodhana was sold in 1975 to a Belgian businessman. His widow consigned the statue to Sotheby’s in 2010. In September 2010, Sotheby’s retained a professional art “scientist” to prepare a report on the head of the statue, which was detached from the torso sometime in the 1970s. When the art scientist suggested more tests were needed to determine the reasons for the break and the varying condition of the two parts, Sotheby’s “terminated the Scientist’s engagement.” The statue was then featured on the cover of Sotheby’s March 2011 Asian auction catalogue, before being withdrawn from sale when questions about its provenance were raised. But, the amended complaint explains that, even after withdrawing the piece from auction, Sotheby’s:

” … provided inaccurate information regarding its provenance to numerous parties, including potential buyers, the Kingdom of Cambodia, and United States law enforcement, specificall that the [statue] … had been seen in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s. As Sotheby’s was aware, many museum and other buyers will not purchase antiquities without a pre-1970 provenance.”

The Bhima was acquired by the Norton Simon Museum in Southern California in 1976 from a New York art dealer, whom they emphasized in their press release about the gift was “reputable.” The Cambodian government has agreed to loan other ancient Khmer statues to the Norton Simon Museum periodically to help fill the hole left by the departure of the Bhima.

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