Ancient statue will be returned to Cambodia

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) - Sotheby's auction house in New York has agreed to return an ancient statue to Cambodia, ending a heated legal battle that began more than a year ago.

The agreement, signed Thursday by lawyers for Sotheby's, the consignor and the U.S. government, states that the auction house will transfer the statue to a representative of Cambodia in New York within 90 days.

Sotheby's and the consignor, a Belgian woman named Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, "have voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage, to arrange for the statue to be transferred to the Kingdom of Cambodia," the agreement says.

The statue was pulled from an auction in 2011 after Cambodia expressed concerns that it had been looted from the country's Koh Ker temple complex in the 1970s. After negotiations with Sotheby's broke down, the U.S. government launched the legal case in 2012 on grounds that the auction house had known the statue to be stolen when it imported it.

In the agreement signed Thursday, the U.S. attorneys agreed to withdraw their earlier claim that Sotheby's "knew or believed that the statue was owned by the Kingdom of Cambodia or knowingly provided false or misleading provenance information about the statue."

"Sotheby's is delighted to have arranged for an amicable resolution that both achieves our long-standing objective to facilitate the transfer of the sculpture to Cambodia and confirms that Sotheby's and its client acted properly at all times," Sotheby's told The Associated Press by email.

The decision follows the Metropolitan Museum of Art's return of two statues from the same 10th-century temple in June and sets a precedent for further repatriations.

Discussions are underway between the Cambodian government and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, which has another of the temple's statues. Leslie Denk, the museum's director of public affairs, said this week that museum representatives would be visiting Cambodia and that the museum is "cooperating with the appropriate authorities."

Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Cambodian government, on Friday called the agreement "great news".

"I'm sure the spirits of the Khmer ancestors who built the statue will be right there, standing and smiling when the statue (comes) back," he said.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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