After federal agents in New York were set to seize a 1,000-year-old Cambodian statue, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled on Thursday that Sotheby’s can maintain custody of the relic.
The sandstone sculpture had originally been offered for auction in March 2011 but was pulled from the market when Cambodia alleged it had been pillaged from the Koh Ker temple. On Wednesday, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, filed a civil complaint against Sotheby’s, asserting that the auction house knew the artifact had been looted when it was first put up for auction.
As reported by the New York Times, judge George B. Daniels stalled the government seizure of the statue and ordered Sotheby’s, which had planned to sell the piece to an unidentified Belgian client for up to $3 million last year, to hold on to the sculpture and make it available for inspection by the Department of Homeland Security.
Peter G. Neiman, a lawyer for Sotheby’s, claims that the auction house’s attempt to sell the figure did not violate American or Cambodian cultural property laws and that the statue is better off with Sotheby’s than with the government, which, he claimed in court papers, is ill-equipped to care for the ancient artifact.
Sharon Cohen Levin, an assistant United States Attorney, responded that United States Customs official routinely cares for precious artifacts and that Sotheby’s is neither an appropriate nor neutral third party.
The statue remains in Sotheby’s care pending a hearing set for Apr. 12.