There’s No Place Like Home: Looted Art and Smooth Operators, A Masterpiece Heads Back to Cambodia

by Steven Woodruff

Bhima, Temple Wrestler

Bhima, Temple Wrestler

I headed over to the Norton Simon Museum the other day to say goodbye to a friend, the imposing Temple Wrestler from Cambodia. He’d been living illegally in the U.S. for forty years and was finally, after a long and celebrated stay, being deported. May 22nd was his last day on the job in Pasadena. The Bhima wrestler, one of two matching stone sculptures, was hacked off his plinth in the jungle at Koh Ker during the chaos of the Pol Pot era. It was eventually acquired by the Norton Simon where it’s been on display since 1980. The sheared off feet of both sculptures remain on plinths at the site.


Leslie Denk, the director of public affairs at the museum, said the Norton Simon Art Foundation was making a gift of their imposing, over sized statue to the Kingdom of Cambodia. She made a point of mentioning the care and the excellent scholarship on the work since it had been in the custody of the museum.  The published scholarship did not mention anything about the statue’s obvious shady history. The gift idea had the advantage of saving a little face and avoiding an eventual legal showdown.


How does a monumental, never-before-seen antiquity of this caliber just show up for sale one day? No one had ever seen it, even in a private collection, before it arrived at the Norton Simon in the mid 70’s. It was traded through a British auction house, supposedly out of a private collection. Issues surrounding its origins eventually surfaced when its companion (the Duryodhama) was set to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York in 2012. Cambodia made an official request to the State Department for the antiquity to be returned. The Met (for good measure) also threw in two of its life sized Cambodian sculptures as part of general repatriation arrangements. In the legal wrangling the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York faced off against Sotheby’s legal representative, Jane Levine. Levine was once herself a prosecutor in the cultural property crimes unit. She now works as Sotheby’s Director of Worldwide Compliance.


This is not the first time the Norton Simon has returned flagship artwork. In the 80’s the museum returned its famous, many-armed dancing Shiva as part of a repatriation deal with India. The arrangements allowed the sculpture to stay on display at the museum for ten years before it was sent home. One of the interesting side lights of the deal allowed the museum to continue to acquire other (possibly looted) Indian art purchased outside of India for a year without fear of repatriation requests. The museum still retains a large collection of mostly Indian antiquities in its cave like sculpture galleries. Pretty much everything there has been hacked or chiseled off one temple or another in successive waves of depredation lasting more than two hundred years.


The Norton Simon is not the only Los Angeles area museum with looted art problems. In the 1990’s, Marion True (it turned out she wasn’t), the Getty’s classical antiquities dealer, became embroiled in prosecutions over looted art that saw the museum return 40 stolen works, some of which had been fenced through a private dealer, Giacomo Medici, in Switzerland. She also figured prominently in the swirling debate over the possibly looted and forged Kouros. She was eventually prosecuted in both Italy and Greece, and had her career ruined along with others at the Getty. The case in Greece resulted in a dismissal. The case in Italy ended when the applicable statute of limitations ran out. Medici was convicted, receiving a hefty fine and a ten year sentence.

The plinths of the matching sculptures

The plinths of the matching sculptures


An auction house in the U.K., originally sold the Angkor era work to the Norton Simon. The paper trail on the work was suspect, the circumstances under which it left Cambodia and its subsequent importation through Thailand, dodgy.  Much of the available information sought to push back the provenance dating in order to sidestep international standards which came into play in 1970. Thousands of works were looted in Cambodia during the Pol Pot era which was cruelly violent and had no sense of cultural patrimony. A quarter of the country’s population disappeared and ancient artworks by the thousands ended up in private collections around the world. For forty years the wrestler has lived quietly at the Norton Simon. No one it seems wanted to spill the beans until the dust up at the Sotheby’s auction.


I frequently visit the Norton Simon. The museum is small and they have a handful of works, both paintings and sculptures that I like to revisit. I had seen the Shiva there often before it was returned. On his next to last day, the wrestler was getting a few more photo ops than usual. Thursday evening, a crew of conservators would show up after closing and begin packing him up. I was sorry he was leaving. I looked around the galleries at the filched Ganeshas, purloined Vishnus, and the assortment of nicked architectural fragments. They would be staying, indefinitely. The wrestler had had his day in court, and was lucky, finally, to be headed home.

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