US lawyer visits Cambodian temple in Sotheby's standoff

A US government lawyer assisting Cambodia's legal bid to make auction house Sotheby's return a 10th century Khmer statue on Wednesday toured the site from which the artifact was looted, an official said.

Assistant US Attorney Sharon Levin visited the Koh Ker temple, 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat complex, where the pedestal and feet of the contested sandstone statue, known as the Duryodhana, remain.

"She led a delegation to collect more data at the site in Koh Ker temple where the statue was looted," government spokesman Ek Tha told AFP.

Levin, who heads the US government's asset forfeiture office, arrived in Phnom Penh Sunday and has also met with Cambodian officials working on the case, he added.

The ancient Cambodian statue of a warrior is at the centre of a legal battle in New York.

Cambodia claims the artwork was looted and US authorities filed a civil complaint last April against Sotheby's, blocking them from selling the item.

"Her visit will help build a stronger case that the statue belongs to Cambodia," Ek Tha said.

"We are confident that Cambodia will win the case and be able to repatriate the statue back to the country," he added.

The statue's origin is not under dispute. It made a pair with another statue that is also in the United States, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

Experts widely agree both that the statues are a prime example of the best of Khmer art -- the pair are locked in battle, and depict motion, which is unique among statues from the period -- and that they were looted in the 1970s.

The US Attorney's office said in a statement last year that the Duryodhana statue was "stolen from the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in Cambodia".

"The Koh Ker site is very significant (and) the Duryodhana is considered to be a piece of extraordinary value to the Cambodian people and part of their cultural heritage," the statement said.

A court then ordered Sotheby's, which insists the statue valued at $2-3 million can be sold legitimately, not to sell or transfer the work.

Sotheby's is currently holding onto the work but its future is unclear.

According to prosecutors, Sotheby's imported the statue in April 2010 "and made arrangement to sell the statue, despite knowing it was stolen from Koh Ker".

But Sotheby's denied doing anything wrong, saying previously that it "strongly disputes the allegations".

The row began in early 2011 shortly before a planned March 24 auction, when Cambodia's government sent a letter through UNESCO claiming ownership of the 10th century work. Sotheby's stopped the sale.

"Cambodian ancestors built the statues for its cultural value, not to sell it," said Ek Tha, adding that Cambodian officials believed the statue was looted in 1972 during the country's civil war.