Cambodia say US auction house to return ancient Khmer statue

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia announced Monday that leading auction house Sotheby's will return a 10th century Khmer statue worth up to $3 million (S$3.76 million) said to have been looted during its civil war.

The statue of a warrior will be returned to the kingdom within 90 days under an agreement signed last week by Sotheby's, its Belgian client and US authorities, said Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.

The deal ends a long legal battle in the US where Sotheby's is headquartered, Sok An told a press conference.

"The statue that was looted from Cambodia 41 years ago will be returned to the country," he said.

"The soul of our ancestors who built the statue will be satisfied," he said, adding that Cambodia will organise a ceremony to welcome home the statue.

The row began in early 2011 shortly before a planned auction in March that year, when Cambodia's government sent a letter through UNESCO claiming ownership of the work. Sotheby's stopped the sale.

Cambodia claims the sandstone statue, known as the Duryodhana, was looted in the 1970s from a temple in Koh Ker, 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of the famed Angkor Wat complex.

US authorities filed a civil complaint in April last year against Sotheby's, blocking the sale of the item.

The statue's origin is not under dispute. It is one of a pair - the other one is also in the United States, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

Experts agree both statues are prime examples of the best of Khmer art - the pair are locked in battle, and depict motion, which is unique among statues from the period - and that they were looted in the 1970s.

The decision follows the return in June of two other Khmer 10th century statues known as the "Kneeling Attendants" which Cambodia says were looted in the 1970s from the Koh Ker temple site.

They were on show for 20 years at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the time the country was in the midst of a civil war and looting was rampant.

Sok An also urged people who are keeping other illegal ancient artworks to consider returning them to Cambodia.