December 29, 2013

Was the repatriation of a footless 10th century statue to Cambodia this month related to Sotheby's history of selling Khmer pieces with "no published provenance" or "weak" collecting histories?

This month's repatriation of a 10th century footless sandstone statue looted from an archaeological site in Cambodia has a backstory going back a few years. In an academic article published in July 2011, Tess Davis, then assistant director of Heritage Watch, wrote that Sotheby's Auction House had listed 377 Khmer pieces for sale between 1988 and 2010:
Seventy-one percent of the antiquities had no published provenance, or ownership history, meaning they could not be traced to previous collections, exhibitions, sales, or publications. Most of the provenances were weak, such as anonymous private collections, or even prior Sotheby’s sales. None established that any of the artifacts had entered the market legally, that is, that they initially came from archaeological excavations, colonial collections, or the Cambodian state and its institutions. While these statistics are alarming, in and of themselves, fluctuations in the sale of the unprovenanced pieces can also be linked to events that would affect the number of looted antiquities exiting Cambodia and entering the United States. This correlation suggests an illegal origin for much of the Khmer material put on the auction block by Sotheby’s
In the summer of 2011, Jane Levine of Sotheby's objected to Ms. Davis' article and demanded a retraction. About six months later, Cambodia asked that Ms. Levine be removed from a cultural panel based on perceived ethical conflicts.

At the end of February 2012, Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal wrote in The New York Times ("Mythic Warrior is Captive in Global Art Theft", February 28, 2012) that the Cambodian government had asked the U.S. for help to stop the sale of a reputedly looted 10th century Khmer Koh Ker footless sandstone statue Sotheby's intended to sell in March. This month, almost two years later, an agreement was reached to return the disputed statue, now described as a Duryodhana statue, to Cambodia ("Duryodhana statue from Prasat Chen, Cambodia: "Voluntary" Repatriation by Sotheby's and consigner").

Ms. Davis is now a Researcher in the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow.


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