Federal Court Judge rules that 10th c. Khmer statue remains at Sotheby’s … for now

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan

In a 30-minute conference held on the 21st floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan today, Judge George B. Daniels ruled against the government’s request for “a warrant to arrest” the 10th century Khmer sandstone sculpture, known as a Dvarapala, which is the subject of the in rem civil forfeiture action known as United States of America v. A 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture [case number: 12 Civ. 2600 (GBD)]. If granted the warrant, the Government would transfer the sculpture from Sotheby’s warehouse to federal custody at another New York City warehouse. (Read about the case in the earlier post by Damien Huffer’s “Sotheby’s “Off-Base” on Cambodian Antiquities Again”.)

[The statue remains at Sotheby’s subject to a restraining order that requires Sotheby’s not to move the Dvarapala from its warehouse and to make it available for viewing by the government.]

The outcome of the conference was clear at the outset, when Judge Daniels told Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Cohen Levin that he “hesitates” to grant the government’s request to remove the statue from Sotheby’s warehouse at this time, because after he received the Government’s verified complaint, the Judge received an April 4 fax from Sotheby’s legal counsel Peter G. Nieman that challenges some of the government’s allegations. The existence of Sotheby’s April 4 fax, Judge Daniels said, required him to determine whether sufficient probable cause exists to grant the government’s request to remove the Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse at this time.

In response, Ms. Levin said that no rule exists allowing Sotheby’s to send the Judge its April 4 fax, because Sotheby’s is not a party to the case, merely a temporary custodian of the property. Therefore the fax should not be considered in the Judge’s decision.

Ms. Levin then repeated the contents of her own April 4 fax to the Judge, citing Rule G of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which states that in order to establish probable cause, the Government’s must: (a) file a verified complaint; and the verified complaint (b) must state the grounds for subject-matter jurisdiction, in rem jurisdiction over the defendant property, and venue; (c) must describe the property with reasonable particularity; (d) if the property is tangible, must state the location of the property when the action is filed; (e) must identify the statute under which the forfeiture action is brought; and (f) must state sufficiently detailed facts to support a reasonable belief that the government will be able to meet its burden of proof at trial — all of which the Government had done.

The Judge’s response: the Government’s verified complaint and two-page application for a warrant are “appropriate” but do not constitute probable cause for granting the Government’s request to remove Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse.

Judge Daniels asked Ms. Levin whether there was any “urgency” in the Government’s request to remove the Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse. Ms. Levin responded no. The Government does not expect Sotheby’s to violate the Judge’s restraining order (which requires the Cambodian statue be kept safe and secure in Sotheby’s warehouse and available for viewing by the Government).

Judge Daniels then questioned whether the Government of Cambodia had requested the US Attorney to request the warrant that would remove the Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse. Ms. Levin said yes and agreed to send a copy of Cambodia’s request to Judge Daniels.

In a bid to establish probable cause, Ms. Levin repeated the basic elements of the Government’s verified complaint. She asserted that the type of warrant requested by the Government is necessary, and should not have been considered unusual or unexpected by Sotheby’s, as Sotheby’s has argued. Ms. Levin added that, in the past, the Government has seized such items under similar circumstances from Sotheby’s, therefore Sotheby’s was familiar with the process and should have known what to expect. In certain of those cases, Ms. Levin said, the Govemment has determined that Sotheby’s indeed acted as an honest broker and should retain physical custody of the disputed item until the matter is resolved. But this is not one of those cases, Ms. Levin continued, since the Govemment alleges here that Sotheby’s continued to market and attempted to sell the Dvarapala after Sotheby’s own paid expert told the auction firm that the statue was “definitely stolen.” The expert has been identified by the New York Times as Emma Cadwalader Bunker, who is a grand-daughter of former U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker.

[The Government’s complaint references the Khmer scholar Eric Bourdonneau, who located a temple known as Prasat Chen, located at a site known as Koh Ker, deep in the Cambodian jungle, and found the base (known as a Bima pedestal) on which the Sotheby’s statue and its mate, a similar statue now at the Norton Simon Museum, once stood. The measurements that Bourdonneau made of the feet, which are still attached to the Bima pedestals at Prasat Chen, match the Sotheby’s and Norton Simon statues, which are both footless.] [The Government’s complaint also quotes the Sotheby’s expert as saying in an email to Sotheby’s: “I have been doing a little catchup research on Koh Ker (the site from this the statue was reputedly stolen), and do not think you should sell the Dvarapala at public auction. The Cambodians in Pnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ…Please do not give this report to anyone outside of Sotheby, as I often have access to such material, and don’t want to anger my sources. The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from. I think it would be hugely unwise to offer the Dvarapala publicly, and I would not really feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances. It is also possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back….I’m sorry as I had some exciting things to say about it, but I don’t think Sotheby wants this kind of potential problem.” Later, the same expert emailed Sotheby’s again, telling them the opposite: that the Cambodians may not complain complain after all: “I think it best that you know all this,” the expert writes, “but think that legally and ethically you can happily sell the piece.” In a third email quoted in the Government’s complaint, responding to Sotheby’s request to show the sales description that the expert had written to Cambodian authorities, the expert refused, saying “There is NO WAY that I can send what I write to [the Minister of Culture]…. Sending the writeup specifically would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” Sotheby’s then notified the Cambodian Culture Minister of its intention to sell the Dvarapala in November 2010 but did not receive an immediate response.] [The Goverment’s complaint also references a January 20, 2011 Sotheby’s internal email, which says in part: “You no doubt know that we will be selling a sculpture in our New York Asian sales that is known to have come from a specific site in Cambodia and or which we only have provenance from 1975… While questions may be raised about this, we feel we can defend our decision to sell it…” Finally, in a letter dated March 24, 2011, the day of the auction, Cambodian authorities demanded that the Dvarapala be removed from the sale, and that Sotheby’s facilitate its return to Cambodia.]

Ms. Levin concluded her argument by asserting that Sotheby’s is neither an appropriate nor neutral third party in this case and should not be permitted to hold the Dvarapala, which it should have known was considered stolen under Cambodian law. She added that the Judge should reject Sotheby’s argument, that it had consulted the UNESCO art law database and found no cultural property laws for Cambodia dating back to 1900, as the Government complaint alleges, because the UNESCO database contains a disclaimer stating that users must perform their own due diligence.

[A simple Google search would have pointed Sotheby’s to an article about Cambodia in Volume 17 of Cultural without Context, published by the MacDonald Institute at Cambridge University, references a 1925 Cambodian cultural property law that applies in this case, but does not appear in the UNESCO database].

Ms. Levin also noted the U.S. customs routinely cares for precious artifacts. [Seized million-dollar artworks and antiquities are stored at the heavily guarded ICE facility at The Fortress in Long Island City.]

While Ms. Levin was speaking, Judge Daniels thumbed through some papers and noted that Rule G(3)(b)(iii) states a warrant to remove the Dvarapala from Sotheby’s warehouse did not seem necessary, and is not required so long as a restraining order remains in place. So the Goverment’s request was denied. The next step, Judge Daniels said, is to proceed to a forfeiture hearing, which requires interested parties to file a claim no more than 30 days after the Government posts its final public notice. Therefore, the Court must wait until June 5 to determine whether there are any parties to the case other than Cambodia and Sotheby’s consignor.

“It makes sense for the parties to exchange discovery information in the meantime,” said Judge Daniels, and if more information and witnesses are needed, the parties should provide that no later than July 7.

The next conference in United States of America v. A 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture is scheduled for Wednesday, June 20 at 10:30 AM.

 

 

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