Repatriation of cultural property in the news

What looting looks like: feet of Sotheby's pillaged statue are still at the site of Koh Ker, Cambodia.
What looting looks like: feet of Sotheby’s pillaged statue are still at the site of Koh Ker, Cambodia.

This week brought two unrelated but important news stories. Though nothing to do with African art, both are important new precedents in the highly complex issue of cultural repatriation.

Firstly, after again a highly contested auction including Hopi artifacts in Paris, the Annenberg Foundation announced the return of sacred artifacts to the Hopi. The Foundation had purchased 24 sacred Native American artifacts from an auction house in Paris – totaling $530,000 – for the sole purpose of returning them to their rightful owners. Twenty-one of these items will be returned to the Hopi Nation in Arizona, and three artifacts belonging to the San Carlos Apache will be returned to the Apache tribe. Read the whole story here. Additional info on the website of the Annenberg Foundation here and on the website of the BBC here. Concerning the previous sale in April click here.

A second important news item concerns an ancient statue of a Hindu warrior, withdrawn from a Sotheby’s auction in New York two years ago because of assertions that it had been looted from a temple deep in the jungles of Cambodia. After a long court battle over this 10th century Khmer figure (valued at more than $ 2 million), a settlement signed on Thursday by Sotheby’s, its client and federal officials arranged that it will be returned to Cambodia. 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. More on the story here. Though a scholar warned Sotheby’s in advance that the statue should not be sold at public auction since there was clear evidence that it was definitely stolen, as the feet were still in situ, Sotheby’s proceeded with the sale, with officials saying in internal emails that while it might receive bad press from “academics and ‘temple huggers,’” the potential profits from the sale made it “worth the risk.” Further reading here and here.