Cambodia has just turned up the heat on a year-long battle with a New York auction house by enlisting help from the US government to recover a thousand-year-old statue it suspects was looted from their country during the bloody Khmer Rouge genocide.
“Every red flag on the planet should have gone off when this was offered for sale,” said Herbert V. Larson Jr., a New Orleans lawyer and antiquities expert who teaches legal issues involving smuggled artifacts, reported the New York Times. “It screams ‘loot.’ ”
To the New York auction house, Sotheby's, the statue screams something entirely different: $2 million and $3 million;which was the catalog price before it was yanked off the auction block a day before it was to go on sale.
Now the US Department of Homeland Security has opened an investigation following a request from the Cambodian Government.
A spokeswoman for the agency, Danielle Bennett, said it “is working closely with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the government of Cambodia to look into the matter and determine the proper course of action,” according to the Times.
Last year, Cambodia sent the auction house a letter saying the statue, which resembles an athletic combatant in intricate headdress from the mid 900s in a battle-ready stance, was “illegally removed” from the country.
In the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, the Associated Press reported, an official in charge of Ministry of Culture's heritage department confirmed that Cambodia had sent a letter asking for the statue's sale to be halted.
The official, Hab Touch, also said the 10th-century statue was looted from the Koh Ker temple.
A photo of Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia.
Where's the feet?
One way authorities suspected that the larger-than-life-size sculpture, that once served as a wrestling figure in a major temple, may have been illegally removed from their country had to to with a particular clue archeologists found in a remote Cambodian archeologist site: The pedestal and feet belonging to the thousand-year-old footless statue.
Like the prince looking for Cinderella to fit the glass slipper she left behind, so too did Eric Bourdonneau, an archaeologist, match both statues to their bases that were left behind, according to the New York Times. He also told the Times that the relics were looted in the early 1970s (Click here for picture of base).
Although the 5-foot-tall 250-pound sandstone warrior statue was snapped off at the ankle from it's stone pedestal,Sotheby’s says there is no proof that it was taken illegally, the New York Times said.
The world's oldest auction house said that the person who had decided to sell the statue was a “noble European lady” who purchased the statue in December 1975 -- a time when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 that eventually resulted in the torture, execution, starvation of two million people.
The warrior's twin, that Sotheby's describes as "almost identical in posture and physical appearance" as its mate, has been on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, since 1980, and also has been matched to its pedestal and feet at the same Cambodian site (click here for picture).
The Khmer Rouge
When the Khmer Rouge ravaged Cambodia in the 1970s, the Times reported, looters hacked their way into long-inaccessible temples, pillaged priceless antiquities and sold them to Thai and Western collectors.
"Archaeologists say all clues suggest the work at Sotheby’s was plundered in the 1970s amid the chaos of power struggle and genocide."
“There is no question the statue was looted in the final stages of the war,” said the collector to the Times, Istvan Zelnik, a former Hungarian diplomat in the region who has offered to buy the statue.
“The best solution is that I purchase it for purposes of donation,” Mr. Zelnik told the Times.
No different to blood diamonds
Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and Cambodia scholar, said she believes potential buyers of Cambodian artifacts need to understand the scale of the crime.
"A number of American and European museums and auction houses have been caught with illicit, illicit Cambodian antiquities, many of these were taken from Khmer Rouge occupied areas during the countries long conflict, which makes them blood antiquities," she told ABC Radio Australia.
"It's no different to blood diamonds from Sierra Leone," she said.