US Judge Denies Sotheby’s Motion to Dismiss Statue Case

Cambodia’s lawsuit against auction house Sotheby’s over a 10th century sandstone statue has been given the go-ahead by a U.S. judge who on Thursday denied Sotheby’s motion to dismiss the case.

In April, at the Cambodian government’s request, the U.S. State Department moved to seize the statue from Sotheby’s, which had intended to put the $3 million piece up for auction, on the grounds that it was looted from Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Preah Vihear province during the turbulent 1970s.

After the statue, known as the Duryodhana, was allegedly looted, it was purchased by a private collector in Belgium from a British auction house in 1975. The wife of that collector, a Ms. Ruspoli Di Poggio Suasa, sent the piece to Sotheby’s in New York to sell in 2010, but its sale was prevented after the Cam­bodian government asked U.S. authorities to intervene.

Cambodia’s lawsuit, brought by the Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, claimed that the auction house was fully aware that the statue was stolen before trying to put it up for sale. The statue’s feet remain in situ at the Koh Ker temple complex.

Sotheby’s subsequently denied any wrongdoing and called for the suit to be dismissed, saying that the U.S. government, on Cambodia’s behalf, had failed to adequately prove in their filing that the statue was stolen or that the auction house knew it was looted when it was imported into the U.S.

In a written ruling on Thursday, Judge George Daniels denied the motion to dismiss the case.

“The government has sufficiently pled facts regarding Sotheby’s knowledge that the statue was stolen at the time of import to the United States,” Judge Daniels wrote.

The Judge also ruled that the government could add new factual allegations to their original complaint, something the auction house had also tried to block.

“The PAC [proposed amended complaint] alleges that Sotheby’s provided inaccurate information regarding the statue’s provenance to numerous parties, in­cluding potential buyers, the Kingdom of Cambodia, and United States law enforcement, specifically that the statue was seen in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s,” the judge’s decision reads.

Hearings in the case will now continue, though no date has been set for their resumption.

In a statement issued last week following Judge Daniels’ ruling, Sotheby’s stressed that while their motion had been dismissed key questions remained over “wheth­er Cambodia declared ownership of the statue with the clarity re­quired by due process; whether the good faith purchase of the statue in 1975 defeats Cambodia’s claim, and whether Sotheby’s knew the statue belonged to Cam­bodia.”

“When the court ultimately addresses these questions, we continue to expect to prevail on each,” it says.

While Judge Daniels’ decision is ultimately a boon for the Cambodian government, Hab Touch, director-general of the department for tangible heritage at the Ministry of Culture, declined to comment Sunday, as he was yet to read the judge’s ruling in full.

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