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US Investigator Gathering Evidence for Return of Statues

U.S. prosecutors and the Cambodian government say the 1,000-year-old sandstone statue, The Mahabharata, was looted from the temple of Prasat Chen in the 1960s or 1970s and should be repatriated.
PHNOM PENH - A US attorney is currently in Siem Reap province searching for evidence that could help Cambodia make a claim to have a statue returned from the the American auction house Sotheby’s, officials said Wednesday.

Assistant US Attorney Sharon Levin, from the Department of Justice, is looking for evidence at the Koh Ker temple, where two statues where allegedly stolen and eventually sold, officials said.

One statue resides at the Norton Simon Museum in California, while the other, which made it to the hands of a private collector, is currently held by Sotheby’s.

Cambodia is working with the US Department of Justice to have the Sotheby’s statue seized and returned to Cambodia. Cambodian officials have said they would like to see the Norton Simon statue returned as well, though there has been no legal action taken to that end so far.

The two large statues were temple guardians, and Cambodia says they were taken during the the upheaval of the 1970s, a claim that Sotheby’s has said lacks evidence.

Sotheby’s argues that the statue it is trying to auction could have been taken from Cambodia at any time, an important distinction because international law would allow the trafficking of the statues if they were stolen before Cambodia nationalized its assets, including artwork.

Government spokesman Ek Tha told reporters that Levin’s current investigation could help prove the statues were stolen in the 1970s.

US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh confirmed Levin’s trip, but declined to comment further. Levin is expected to depart Cambodia on Thursday.