Great Hindu epic Mahabharata, like all epics, is essentially a story of a battle between good and evil. The evil in this in story is represented by hundred Kourava princes and the good by five Pandawa princes. The chief or main tormentor of good is the eldest Kourava prince ‘Duryodhana’. Mahabharata describes in detail, how Duryodhana’s end came. Duryodhana’s closest ally ‘Karna’ fighting a battle royal from his chariot was defeated by supreme worrior Arjuna, by employing unfair means. Duryodhana totally disappointed now ran away and hid himself near a lake but came out later to face his destiny. Pandawa princes offered him a one to one fight with any of the Pandawa’s with weapon of his choice. Duryodhana stands up to this challenge, and agrees for a one to one battle with Bhima using mace. Both the worriers being equally good and proficient in the skill of fighting with a mace, get into a fight.
They look and jump on each other to start this fight to finish and kill the opponent. It was this moment in the battle of good against the evil, that was picked up by Cambodian King Jayvarman IV (928-941 CE) to put into a sandstone sculpture as the ideal adornment for the entrance of Prasat Thom Temple of Hindu God Vishnu being built by him in his capital Koh Ker, about 80 miles from Angkor. Instead of creating a bass relief as was the practice, king decided to create a sculpture in full round form, where these two worriers would be seen standing freely on ground ready to leap at each other. The sculptors, on their king’s wishes, created a sculpture that was unique and extra ordinary in every sense.
At the end of 19th century, two French scholars, Louis Delaporte and Étienne Aymonier, rediscovered Koh Ker, Prasat Thom Temple and its colossal sculptures. A French archaeologist, Eric Bourdonneau, in his report says that the work had been seen in place as recently as in the 1960s, and a road built after 1965 provided the first easy access to the site. During decades of 1960 and 1970, civil war raged in Cambodia and Prasat Chen, temple was looted. It was then, that the two statues of the worriers were hacked near the ankles and plundered. The feet and toes of the statues, firmly anchored to the ground, was all that remained at Koh Ker.
The first known auction in England of one of the statues, that of Duryodhana, came to knowledge, when a Belgian art collector bought this statue in 1975. The other statue (that of Bhima) reached mysteriously to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. USA , where it has been on display since 1980.
Duryodhana statue was offered for auction by Belgian collectors last year, to Sotheby’ s, who arranged the import of the artifact to US. And listed it in their catalogue for auction. When Cambodians found out about the proposed auction, they complained to Sotheby’s that the artifact in fact is a stolen material and Sotheby’s responded by withdrawing it from the auction. Cambodia tried to recover the artifact through a Hungarian art collector, who agreed to pay Sotheby’s a sum of 1 Million Dollars but this deal fell through and finally Cambodia made a complaint to US Government.
These international artifact auctions and trades appear very strange for common person like me. In the present case, there are two statues here, whose origins can be proved without any doubt. Yet two specific criteria would have to be fulfilled in a court law to decide that it is stolen material. Firstly it would have to be established, when the artifacts were stolen? And secondly. Were there any laws in the country of origin, which considered such action of removal of artifacts (Looting?) from the original place as an unlawful action?
Luckily for Cambodia, it seems that both these criteria can be established. Firstly, French archaeologist, Eric Bourdonneau’s report clearly says that the artifacts were at their source right up to 1960, which means that these were plundered after that and secondly Cambodia has recently found out that it had Patrimony laws from French Colonial era from early 20th century, which considered removal of such ancient artifacts as unlawful. Armed with this legal position, US federal agents started investigations on the case. They studied the secret e-mail messages sent by Sotheby’s and soon discovered holes in Sotheby’s defense that the import of statue in US is perfectly legal.
Before putting the Duryodhana statue for auction, Sotheby’s engaged an expert known for her books on Khmer (Cambodian) art, Emma C. Bunker, who later agreed that she was indeed the scholar engaged. She agreed that she had tried to warn a Sotheby official not to sell the statue by action publicly but rather privately to attract less attention as “The Cambodians in Phnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Thom at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ.” However Ms. Banker was assured by the Sotheby officials that they have clear provenance on the statue.
US Attorney office finally put up a case last week. The forfeiture complaint was filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the New York Office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. It names several reasons for Sotheby’s to forfeit the Duryodhana, including the allegation that the statue constitutes stolen property introduced into the United States in violation of U.S. Law and announced that they would impound the statue for eventual return to Cambodia.
A federal judge in Manhattan however has given Sotheby’s, continued custody of the antiquity and has ruled against immediate seizure of a 1,000-year-old Cambodian statue and has fixed a future date for the case. It therefore still remains unclear whether Duryodhana would ever return home? One thing is for sure, that even if it returns to Cambodia at a later date, it would no longer stand at , Prasat Thom Temple in Koh Ker. It would certainly find a place of honour in the renowned and famous museum at Phnom Penh.