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Christie's to return statue valued at $3 million to Cambodia

Photo The statue of Bhima that the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., agreed on Tuesday to return to Cambodia. Credit Norton Simon Art Foundation

Just like Indiana Jones acted like a sort of modern day Robin Hood returning statues looted by the Nazis to their rightful place in museums, Christie's, the famous auction house is returning a statue looted in the 1970's by the United States during the Vietnam War era to its rightful place in Cambodia, The New York Times reports today (May 7). For more on this report visit

"Yet another ancient statue looted in the 1970s from a single remote temple in the jungles of Cambodia has turned up in the United States, this time at Christie’s, which is voluntarily paying to return it to its homeland," adds the report. "Christie’s sold the statue, a 10th-century sandstone depiction of a mythological figure known as Pandava, to an anonymous collector in 2009, but bought it back earlier this year after officials determined that the sculpture had been looted."

According to the report, in just the past three years, Cambodian officials said they have traced seven statues in the United States to the same Khmer temple, called Prasat Chen, about 75 miles northeast of Angkor Wat, a site pillaged during the upheaval of that country’s civil war, added The Times. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art voluntarily returned two of them last year and Sotheby’s, after a lengthy court battle that ended in a settlement, has agreed to return a third," states the report.

"On Tuesday, after reviewing a Cambodian claim for more than a year, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., said it too would return a huge statue that Cambodian officials have said was stolen from the same temple," added The Times.

“The dam has broken,” Helen Ibbitson Jessup, an expert on Khmer sculpture who is helping Cambodia recover the statues, said of the returns, now totaling five items to The Times. “One assumes they were looted at the same moment, then widely distributed,” she added to the newspaper.

"Cambodian experts say that two other American museums, the Denver Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, have statues from the temple, but officials at those museums say they have received no evidence that their works were illicitly taken," added The Times.

Statue valued at $3 million

"The two latest returns coincide with a ceremony on Wednesday at which federal officials in New York will return a statue to Cambodia that Sotheby’s had hoped to sell for $3 million in 2011," according to the report. Sotheby’s pulled the item from sale, and, in late 2012, the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan sued the auction house on Cambodia’s behalf, contending that it had trafficked in stolen property," added the report in The Times. "In a settlement reached last December, the auction house agreed to surrender the statue and the federal government said it found no fault with the auction house’s conduct."

"The Christie’s statue depicts a character that antiquities experts say sat on a pedestal only a few feet from the Sotheby’s statue, a far larger sculpture representing a mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhana," added the report. "Both were part of a unique grouping of 10th-century sandstone works created at the height of the Koh Ker dynastic period, known for its huge yet sophisticated statuary."

"The Norton Simon work, known as Bhima, stood in a fighting posture against Duryodhana in the original grouping, which consisted of nine characters from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. It had been in the museum’s collection, identified as a “temple wrestler,” since 1976 when it had been purchased from the New York dealer William H. Wolff," the museum said to The Times.

"The museum has previously said that Cambodian representatives had seen the statue on display in California and had not raised any objections. In a statement on Tuesday the Norton Simon said it continues to have “a good-faith disagreement” with Cambodia over ownership of the Bhima, but after sending representatives to Phnom Penh in March to meet with government officials, it has “worked directly with Cambodia to come up with a mutually acceptable solution,” and agreed to give it back as a gift," according to the report.

"Christie’s declined to discuss how it had determined the sculpture it sold had originally been looted. It had auctioned the Pandava statue twice, once in 2000 and again in 2009 for $146,500. It declined to identify the name of the second buyer, but said it contacted that person after reviewing the sale and determining that the statue was stolen," according to The Times “The purchaser was cooperative, concerned about these issues and ultimately is pleased with the outcome,” Erin McAndrew, a Christie’s spokeswoman, said to the newspaper.

Martin Wilson, co-head of legal for Christie’s International told The Time that repatriation issues can be difficult but added, “Christie’s believes it has a useful role to play in facilitating the resolution of cultural property issues between source countries and collectors in specific circumstances,” added the report.

Chan Tani, Cambodia’s secretary of state, praised Christie’s for “a very generous approach” to the case, added The Times. He said that the auction house had contacted him in December and then worked out a complex and costly deal with the owner to recover the object and pay for its return, added the news story.

"Sotheby’s is prepared to pay for the return of its statue as well, according to Andrew P. Gully, Sotheby’s worldwide director of communications to the newspaper. “We have provided information about several professional moving companies familiar with transporting antiquities,” he said in a statement, “and have offered to pay reasonable and documented costs of the transfer to Cambodia.”

Ms. Jessup praised the Metropolitan Museum for beginning this philanthropic effort by returing its two statues, called the Kneeling Attendants, stated The Times. "Those colossal statues, obtained in the 1980s, flanked the entry to the museum’s Southeast Asian exhibition hall."

She said to The Times that “a moral precedent (The Met's return of two statues) was established and the tide of opinion clearly flowed towards restitution.”

Mr. Chan Tani said to the newspaper that "recovering all the statues from the Prasat Chen temple is a national priority. The goal is to reattach the statues to their pedestals, which were left behind by the looters, and place them all together in a special display area in the national museum."

So Staten Island arts enthusiasts, Christie's is beginning the auction season off right by beginning to give back to the countries we looted during times of war. Christie's like The Met before them have shown the world that corporate America has a conscience and a heart and this extraordinary story proves that great art can be returned to its rightful place. Tell us your opinion about Christie's decision to return the statue to Cambodia. We welcome your comments and feedback!