Friday, September 13, 2013

Doing Justice or Pressing an Agenda?

In an ongoing forfeiture action, Sotheby's has alleged that a State Department Cultural Heritage Center employee (who also helps develop import restrictions on cultural goods) was tasked with finding a legal basis for Cambodia's claim to a Khmer statute when Cambodia itself was unable to do so.   Sotheby's also alleges that a CBP officer actively shut down any effort on Cambodia's part to come to an amicable settlement of the underlying dispute with Sotheby's:

"Documents the Government belatedly produced in late August of this year (more than a year after they were requested) show that at the outset of this investigation in March of 2011, and for months thereafter, Cambodia was repeatedly asked to identify a legal basis for its ownership of the Statue, but failed to do so. The U.S. Government recognized that without such a basis, it was “unable to do anything.” Ex. 2 at 1463. Undeterred, the U.S. government represented to Sotheby’s on April 1, 2011 that it already had “probable cause that the item was stolen after Cambodian cultural patrimony laws were enacted,” and instructed Sotheby’s not to move the Statue. Ex. 5. This bought the Government time, which it used, among other things, to try to find the very Cambodian law it claimed already to know made the Statue stolen property, asking a law professor on April 19, 2011 to “help us find the actual cultural property laws that protect Cambodian antiquities prior to 1975.” Ex. 6. Eventually, the U.S. State Department, eager to be as “cooperative with the Cambodians as possible, as cultural artifacts is one of those issues where the two governments have a shared interest,” Ex. 9 at 1413, cobbled together its own theory of Cambodian ownership based on “segments” of long-defunct French colonial decrees issued between 1900 and 1925, when Cambodia was a French protectorate. When the Cambodians persisted in seeking an amicable resolution rather than assert the State Department’s ownership theory, the U.S. Government insisted that “prior to the Cambodians getting their hands on it, we should be the vehicle utilized for the return. Not an Auction house,” and ultimately demanded that Cambodia “stop negotiating with Sotheby’s.” Ex. 8 at 1453; Ex. 10 at 1366."

The State Department's Cultural Heritage Center and elements within U.S. Customs have been criticized for aggressively pressing an anti-collector and anti-trade agenda in an "extralegal" fashion.  Sotheby's allegations will only add to that widely held perception.  

Sotheby's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings in United States v. A Tenth Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture, 12 Civ. 2600 (S.D.N.Y.) may be found on the Court's Pacer database. 

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