The governments of Cambodia and the United States are locked in a legal battle with the auction house Sotheby's over a thousand-year-old statue. The two governments say the statue was looted from a temple of the ancient Khmer empire. Sotheby's says this can't be proved, and a court in New York will decide on the matter soon.
The case could affect how collectors and museums acquire artifacts, and how governments recover lost national treasures.
The modern battle has its roots in an ancient power struggle. The statues come from Koh Ker in northern Cambodia's Preah Vihear province, along the border with Thailand.
In A.D. 921, with the Khmer empire in control of most of mainland Southeast Asia, a succession struggle broke out. King Jayavarman IV moved the imperial capital to Koh Ker, about 50 miles northeast of its traditional base at Angkor Wat.
The temple complex at Angkor Wat has become more famous among tourists, but the buildings at Koh Ker are older and bigger, and required tens of thousands of engineers and laborers to build.
Jayavarman IV died some two decades later. His successor moved the capital back to Angkor Wat, and the jungle swallowed Koh Ker. Trees toppled giant stone pillars, vines crept over carved floral decorations, and moss covered everything.
During Cambodia's three decades of civil war, the area was peppered with landmines, which were only cleared within the past decade. Now, the buildings are open to the public, though less heavily visited than Angkor Wat.
Matching Pedestals For The Statues
Behind the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker, Cambodian archaeologist Phin Samnang descends into a small pit and pulls away a plastic tarpaulin. He points to a group of stone blocks.
"This is the site of the statue that is now in the auction house in America," he says. "Two pedestals were found here. And there were seven more around them."
The life-size statues depict a scene from the Hindu epic the Mahabarata. The warriors Duryodhana and Bhima face off in battle, armed with maces and wearing elaborate ornaments on their heads and arms. Each of the warriors is accompanied by several followers, who watch the combat.
The iconography is Hindu, which was the official religion during Jayavarman IV's reign, but Phin Samnang says the statues' facial features are clearly Khmer.
Phin Samnang says computer modeling has shown that the missing statues fit the pedestals perfectly and, he says, proves that the statues were looted from this temple.
"We must not stay silent. We must reclaim the statues by any and all legal means," he says. "If we don't take action, it means we do not love our antiquities which have been looted and taken overseas."
Anne LeMaistre is the Phnom Penh-based representative for the U.N.'s cultural organization, UNESCO, and adviser to the Cambodian government on the Koh Ker statues. She says that while much of Angkor-era artwork was carved on walls in the form of bas reliefs, Duryodhana and the other statues literally leap out at you.
"You can see he has three little toes which are outside of the pedestal, which is in fact an incredible novelty in terms of sculpture," LeMaistre says. "Even the Greeks, I think, were not conceiving this freedom of sculpting things out of the frame."
Sotheby's canceled the auction of the statue last year after Cambodia's government objected. A year of negotiations between the two sides failed to produce a compromise. Sotheby's has filed a motion to prevent seizure of the statue.
The auction house declined to be interviewed for this report, but provided documents arguing that Cambodia has no physical evidence of exactly when over the past 1,000 years the statue was looted. There have been multiple periods of upheaval involving both foreign invaders and domestic conflict, in which looting occurred.
But LeMaistre argues that there is at least clear circumstantial evidence of when these particular statues left the country.
"There is evidence that all this looting occurred at the end of the '60s," she says. "The Duryodhana [statue] was looted from Cambodia because this site was looted at the same time, and several pieces were found on the art market at the same time, for the first time."
The two statues, of Duryodhana and Bhima, both showed up for auction in London in 1975.
The Cambodian government has now asked for the return of the matching Bhima statue, which is in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif.
In addition, two kneeling figures from the Koh Ker group are in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Sotheby's argues that for decades, Cambodia made no mention of any of these statues, thereby forfeiting any claim of ownership.
Cambodia Pursues Claims
Soeun Kong, a Cambodian official in charge of the antiquities at Koh Ker, says Cambodia began to pursue the artworks as soon as it could.
"Our country is just recovering from civil war, and most of our Angkor-era temples are deep in the jungle," Soeun Kong says. "Some remain to be discovered. Recently, we have received information that some sculptures have appeared on the market, and we are working to get them back."
Whoever prevails in court, the trends are clear: Archaeologically rich countries like Cambodia are becoming more assertive about reclaiming lost artifacts.
Museums argue that they are custodians of the world's cultural heritage, but they are increasingly careful to avoid buying artworks that may have been looted. These issues are part of a larger debate about the rights to define cultural heritage and own cultural property.
What is clear is that, a century ago, there was hardly any market for Khmer art. Today, foreign collectors see it as valuable, and many Cambodians see it as priceless.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.