NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday filed suit demanding auctioneer Sotheby's forfeit a 10th-century sandstone statue the government says was looted from a Cambodian temple.
The statue, known as the Duryodhana, is believed to have been stolen from the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Cambodia sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said in a statement.
The Duryodhana "was looted from the country during a period of upheaval and unrest," Bharara said. "With today's action, we are taking an important step toward reuniting this ancient artifact with its rightful owners."
If successful in the suit, the United States plans to return the statue to Cambodia.
Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer empire in the first half of the 10th century, the civil complaint said. The remote jungle site, which once housed a complex of temples, sanctuaries, a terraced pyramid-temple and towers, is about 200 miles (322 km) north of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
The Duryodhana once stood on a pedestal near the entry to the western pavilion of Prasat Chen, a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The feet of the statue remain there today.
In 1975, a private collector in Belgium bought the Duryodhana from an auction house in the United Kingdom, according to the government's court filing.
In March 2010 Sotheby's agreed to sell the statue at auction and imported it to the United States the next month, making arrangements to sell the statue, despite knowing that it was stolen from Koh Ker, Bharara said.
In March 2011, immediately before the planned auction, the Cambodian government asked Sotheby's to pull the statue from auction, Bharara said. Sotheby's withdrew the statue from the auction, but it remains in its possession.
Sotheby's disputed the government's claims.
"This sculpture was legally imported into the United States and all relevant facts were openly declared," the company said in a statement. "We have researched this sculpture extensively and have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left Cambodia over the last one thousand years nor is there any such evidence in this complaint."
"We have been in active discussions for a year with both the U.S. and Cambodian governments, and we had assured them that we would voluntarily maintain possession of this statue pending further discussion," the company said.
"Given that Cambodia has always expressed its desire to resolve this situation amicably, and that we had an understanding with the U.S. Attorney's Office that no action would be filed pending further discussion towards a resolution of this matter, we are disappointed that this action has been filed and we intend to defend it vigorously."
Reporting by Dan Burns; Editing by Jackie Frank