Federal prosecutors sought Wednesday to confiscate an ancient statue from Cambodia that was pulled from auction at Sotheby's in New York, arguing that the 1,000-year-old relic was stolen from a temple in the South Asian country and illegally imported into the U.S.
The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan filed court papers seeking to compel Sotheby's to forfeit the sandstone statue so that it could be returned to Cambodia. The statue was consigned by a private collector to Sotheby's in 2010, the court papers said.
The 5-foot-tall sandstone sculpture of a mythical warrior in an elaborate headdress had been estimated to sell for up to $3 million. The statue is of "extraordinary value" to the Cambodian people and "a triumph of creativity and innovation," the papers filed by the U.S. attorney's office said.
Sotheby's said it would defend against the action and disputed federal prosecutors' allegation that the sculpture was illegally imported into the U.S.
"We have researched this sculpture extensively and have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left Cambodia," the auction house's statement read. Sotheby's said it had been in discussions with U.S. and Cambodian officials about what to do with the statue.
The statue was to be auctioned on March 24, 2011, but Sotheby's voluntarily withdrew it from auction a day before the sale after a Cambodian official sent a letter asking it to do so.
In February, Sotheby's identified the seller as a European collector who purchased the work from a London dealer in 1975, almost two decades before a 1993 Cambodia law prohibited the removal of cultural artifacts without government permission.