Cambodia said Friday it is prepared to drag top U.S. art auction house Sotheby’s to the Supreme Court if necessary in its battle for the return of a 10th-century statue Phnom Penh says is among three looted during the country’s civil war turmoil.
The sandstone warrior, from the Prasat Chen temple complex in the jungle north of the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor, was set to be auctioned last year by Sotheby’s for as much as $3 million.
But the item was pulled after Cambodia protested the sale, and in March, U.S. officials filed a suit against Sotheby’s on Cambodia’s behalf, saying the piece was removed illegally.
Cambodia’s Council of Ministers Spokesman Phay Siphan said that if the New York district court suit fails, the embassy is ready to take the case higher up the ladder.
“We will take the case to the Supreme Court [if necessary], though we hope that the lower court will order a repatriation to return the artifact to Cambodia,” he told RFA Friday, after Sotheby’s filed papers earlier this week in its bid to dismiss the suit.
He said Cambodia is ready to produce documents proving the country is the rightful owner of the statue, which is believed to depict the figure Duryodhana from the Hindu Mahabarata epic.
The national conservation agency has identified the column that matches the piece and is keeping it in Siem Reap in case it is needed as evidence, he said.
Experts say the statue disappeared from the Koh Ker ruins around the time of Cambodia’s 1970-75 civil war that led to the takeover by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
“The civil war broke out throughout the country and we weren’t able to deal with [the statue] until now, when we have evidence,” Phay Siphan said.
Cambodian Ambassador to the U.S. Hem Heng said there is enough proof that the statue belongs to Cambodia to get it returned.
“We have enough evidence,’ he said.
The warrior piece is believed to be part of a set that also includes two attendant statues Cambodia is demanding be returned from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The twin figures, known as the “Kneeling Attendants,” have been a key part of the museum’s Southeast Asian art collection since they were donated by an American couple in 1987.
The museum says it does not know how the couple obtained the pieces and has no information to suggest the works were stolen, the New York Times reported.
But the museum has previously returned items Cambodia requested, including a 10th-century Shiva head it was given in 1997.
Many museums and galleries in the U.S. and Europe contain artifacts from Khmer civilization, but institutions have tightened their policies on acquisition and documentation on such items in recent decades since countries began taking greater steps toward protecting their cultural heritage.
Reported by So Chivi and Phorn Ryna for RFA’ Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.