Nov 14, 2012

Prosecutors Allege Customs Violations in Koh Ker Statue Forfeiture

Prosecutors have amended their complaint which seeks to forfeit this Koh Ker Khmer statue. Much of the press coverage focuses on whether the colonial French government or some other legal enactment created ownership rights in the statue before the time it was removed.  I don't have a pacer account and access to these court filings, but based on the reporting it appears prosecutors saw a difficult path to victory in attempting to apply colonial French law to the statue. Instead they are also seeking a more straightforward argument: arguing that the importers of the statue lied on their customs forms. From the NYT:

Prosecutors say that in 2010, when the statue was being imported into the United States, the owner submitted an inaccurate affidavit to American customs officials, at Sotheby’s request, stating the statue was “not cultural property” belonging to a religious site. The government contended in its filing on Friday that both parties knew the statue, a mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhanna, valued at up to $3 million, was stolen when they agreed to ship it from Belgium to New York. The government says it can prove that the statue in fact came from a Khmer Dynasty temple, Prasat Chen, part of a vast and ancient complex called Koh Ker.

If prosecutors can establish these statements were inaccurate, the more difficult question of which law might apply to the statue would be largely irrelevant. This is the same legal principle used when prosecutors successfully forfeited a 4th-century B.C. ancient golden phiale from Michael Steinhardt in 1999. Lying to customs officials is a violation of the law, with its own forfeiture provision. If the prosecutors can establish this, a successful forfeiture seems very likely.


  1. Tom Mashberg & Ralph Blumenthal, Sotheby’s Accused of Deceit in Sale of Khmer Statue, The New York Times, November 13, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/arts/design/sothebys-accused-of-deceit-in-sale-of-khmer-statue.html (last visited Nov 14, 2012).
  2. United States v. An Antique Platter of Gold, 184 F. 3d 131 (2nd Cir. 1999).
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