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Cambodian restitution case takes surprising twist

The US government and Sotheby’s accuse each other of acting unethically

The statue of the mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhanna. Photo: courtesy of the US Attorney's Office

In a twist in the legal battle over a Cambodian statue withdrawn from sale at Sotheby’s in 2011, the auction house and the US Attorney’s office have filed papers accusing the other of unethical activities. The restitution of Cambodian objects, including a piece from the same temple recently returned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum, shines a spotlight on the damage to the country’s heritage (see related story).

Last week, Sotheby’s file a motion in the US District Court in Manhattan saying that Brent Easter, an agent with the Department of Homeland Security, pressured the Cambodian government to end talks with the auction house, which was trying to broker a $1m private deal to return the statue, the New York Times reports. Citing government emails, the court papers say the US government “was not pleased with this development, which threatened to leave it with no credit were the statue returned”. In an email quoted in the filing, Easter wrote: “Everyone supports an amicable surrender of the piece, but prior to the Cambodians getting their hands on it, we should be the vehicle utilized for the return. Not an auction house.”

In response, the government filed a motion saying that the head of Sotheby’s worldwide legal compliance department, Janet Levine (who previously worked for the US Attorney’s office), provided “false and misleading provenance information to the government” and discouraged federal officials from obtaining documents that would show that the statue’s provenance was false. Sotheby’s denies this, saying it acted in good faith.

The judge has set another hearing for 14 October.

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