An ancient statue of a Hindu warrior, pulled from auction two years ago because of assertions that it had been looted from a temple deep in the jungles of Cambodia, will be returned to that country under an agreement signed on Thursday by Sotheby’s, its client and federal officials.
The accord ends a long bare-knuckled court battle over the Khmer treasure, a 10th-century statue valued at more than $2 million. The Belgian woman who had consigned it for sale in 2011 will receive no compensation for the statue from Cambodia, and Sotheby’s has expressed a willingness to pick up the cost of shipping the 500-pound sandstone antiquity to that country within the next 90 days.
At the same time, lawyers from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan who had been pursuing the statue on Cambodia’s behalf agreed to withdraw allegations that the auction house and the consignor knew of the statue’s disputed provenance before importing it for sale.
The accord said the consignor, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had long owned the statue, and Sotheby’s had “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that it should be returned.
Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, said the auction house was gladdened that “the agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times.”
Cambodian officials said they were elated by the settlement. “We are very pleased with the help from the American government because so many of our statues are stolen and missing and we want them for the Cambodian people,” said Chan Tani, the country’s secretary of state.
The case has placed a renewed focus on Cambodian sculptures from the Koh Ker region, a once-thriving Khmer metropolis, in American museum collections. Earlier this year the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two statues that had been prominently displayed in its Southeast Asia gallery after federal investigators showed the museum evidence that the statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, had probably been illicitly removed from the same temple setting as the statue in the Sotheby’s dispute, known as the Duryodhana.
With the return of those three statues, Cambodia’s quest will now turn to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., where a twin statue to the Duryodhana, known as the Bhima, has been in the collection since 1980. Mr. Tani said officials from the museum plan to visit Cambodia early next year to explore the Bhima’s original site and hold talks about its possible return.
The settlement, filed in United States District Court in Manhattan, declared that all sides agreed that additional litigation “would be burdensome and would require resolution of disputed factual issues and issues of U.S., Cambodian, French Colonial, and other law.”
In a statement, the United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said, “Today’s settlement reunites a priceless artifact with its rightful owners, the people of Cambodia.”
“The United States is not a market for antiquities stolen from other nations,” he added, “and we will continue to track down and return any that are brought here illegally.”
Mr. Bharara’s office had taken an intense interest in the case, at one point sending two prosecutors to the Prasat Chen temple site at Koh Ker, the original location of the statues at issue. The Koh Ker temple complex is in northern Cambodia, some 75 miles from Angkor Wat, and was extensively looted in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Duryodhana, part of a group of sculptures depicting Hindu epics, had stood at Prasat Chen for a millennium before it was broken from its feet and pedestal and spirited abroad, an act of pillage that archaeological experts say took place in the early ’70s.
The dispute over the statue began in 2011 when the Cambodian government asked Sotheby’s to remove it from sale on the very morning it was to be auctioned in Manhattan.
Featured on the cover of the auction house’s catalog for that month, the Duryodhana was described as an unrivaled masterwork. “If one could choose only one sculpture to represent the glory of Khmer art, this figure could fulfill such a challenge,” the catalog said.
While the auction house agreed to pull the statue from the sale, it rejected Cambodia’s request to return it as stolen property. Instead, the auction house told Cambodian officials that it viewed the statue as the lawful property of its consignor, Ms. Ruspoli, and that Cambodia should consider purchasing it directly through Sotheby’s.
United States officials entered the dispute on Cambodia’s side last year, filing court papers that asserted that the statue constituted stolen property under Cambodian law and had entered the United States illegally as a result. In the filing, federal lawyers accused Sotheby’s of trafficking in stolen property and trying to concoct a false ownership trail that would legitimize the statue’s presence at auction.
Sotheby’s vehemently denied the charges and challenged the government’s case, arguing that evidence of when the statue may have been taken was thin and that the Cambodian laws the government was relying on were moot because they were adopted in the early 1900s when Cambodia was still a French colony.
The settlement signed on Thursday specifically said that the federal authorities no longer contend that Sotheby’s or the consignor had done anything to mislead anyone about the statue’s provenance.
Although the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration and customs enforcement branch moved to seize the statue at one point, a court ruled that it should remain under Sotheby’s care until a final resolution in the case.