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Sotheby's Judge Letter 4.4.12

Sotheby's Judge Letter 4.4.12

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Published by Jason Felch
Attorneys for Sotheby's write to federal judge to prevent seizure of a Cambodian statue.
Attorneys for Sotheby's write to federal judge to prevent seizure of a Cambodian statue.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Jason Felch on Apr 05, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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04/05/2012

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BYFAX
April4,2012
Peter
G.
Neiman
WILMERHALE
Hon.GeorgeB.DanielsUnitedStatesDistrictJudgeSouthernDistrictofNewYork500PearlStreetNewYork,NY10007
+12122956487(t)+12122308888(f)peter.neiman@wilmerhale.com
Re:UnitedStatesv.A10
th
CenturyCambodianSandstoneSculpture12Civ.2600(GBD)
DearJudgeDaniels:IwriteonbehalfofSotheby'swithregardtotheabove-captionedforfeitureactionfiledtodayagainsta10
th
centuryCambodiansculpture(the"Statue")consignedtoSotheby's.Forthereasonssetforthbelow,werespectfullyasktheCourtnottopermittheGovernmenttotakepossessionoftheStatueatthistime..TheconsignorinheritedtheStatuefromherhusband,whopurchaseditingoodfaithinanarms-lengthtransactionfromadealerinLondonin1976andowneditopenlythereafterinBelgiumformorethanthirtyyears.TheGovernment'scomplainttakesthepositionthattheStatueisnonethelessthepropertyofCambodia.ThatpositionisbasedonanovelreadingofancientCambodianlaw,andthetenuous"belief'ofanexpertwhotheorizes(fromexceedinglymodestevidence)thattheStatuewaslootedatsometimeafterCambodiadeclarednationalownershipofitsantiquities,whichthecomplaintallegesoccurredin1900.TheStatueisauniqueandvaluablepieceofart,requiringgreatcareinmovementandstorage.
It
ismonumentalandweighsmorethan500pounds.ThereisnovalidreasontoremoveitfromSotheby's,whereitisproperlystoredinatemperaturecontrolledenvironment.
In
addition,astheGovernmentwellknows,Sotheby'svoluntarilyagreedtoholdontothesculptureinitspossessionandnotmoveitpendinganopportunitytohavefurtherdiscussionswiththeGovernment.WeaskthattheCourt
not
issueaseizurewarrantauthorizingremovalofthepieceatthistimebytheDepartmentofHomelandSecurity,anagencywithlittleexpertiseinhandlingpricelessart.Instead,theCourtshouldpermitconstructiveseizure-underwhichSotheby'swillundertaketoholdthepieceonsite,andnottoallowitsremovalabsentanappropriateorderbytheCourt.SuchanapproachisroutineincasesinvolvingimportantartinthehandsofareputableholderlikeSotheby's.TheGovernmenthasofferednoreasonfordepartingfromsuchordinarypractice,otherthancitingHomelandSecurity'sdesiretocompletetheseizure.
WilmerCutlerPickeringHaleandDorr
LLP,
399ParkAvenue,NewYork,NewYork10022
BeijingBerlinBostonBrusselsFrankfurtLondonLosAngelesNewYorkOxfordPaloAltoWalthamWashington
 
WILMERHALE
Hon.George
B.
DanielsApril4,2012Page2TheGovernment'srushtotakepossessionofthepieceisparticularlydifficulttounderstandbecausebothSotheby'sandtheconsignorhaveknownaboutandcooperatedwiththeinvestigationformorethanayear.Indeed,itwasSotheby'sthatvoluntarilybroughtthepiecetotheattentionoftheCambodiangovernment.Sotheby'shasformonths-withthefullsupportoftheCambodiangovernment-beenattemptingtoarrangeasaletoabuyerwhowoulddonatethestatuetothenationofCambodia.Sotheby'shasalsobeenworkingcooperativelywiththeUnitedStatesAttorney'sOfficetoassessthevalidityofanypossiblelegalclaimsCambodiamighthavetothestatue.
In
lightofthiscooperation,theUnitedStatesAttorney'sOfficeagreed-repeatedly-toprovideSotheby'sanopportunitytobeheardbeforebringingaforfeitureaction.Weunderstandthatamiscommunicationbetweenalineassistant(nowonmaternityleave)andasupervisorledtheOfficenottodoso.Butgiventhishistory,thereplainlyisnoneedtorushtoremoveanirreplaceableworkofartfromitssaferestingspot.Suchhasteisparticularlyunwarrantedbecause,aswelayoutbrieflybelow,therearemajorlegalandfactualholesintheGovernment'sforfeiturecomplaint.Sotheby'swillnotacceptanyantiquitiesforconsignmentandsaleabsentevidencesufficienttoestablishtheconsignor'sgoodtitletotheantiquity.
In
assessingtitle,Sotheby'srecognizesthatmostantiquities-holdingnationshaveinthelastseveraldecadesenactedpatrimonylawsnationalizingtheirexistingantiquities.WithregardtoCambodia,Sotheby'sunderstandinghaslongbeenthatthisdidnotoccuruntilatleast1992,seventeenyearsaftertheevidencepresentedtoSotheby'sbytheconsignorshowedtheStatuewaspurchasedfromadealerinLondon.IntheComplaint,theGovernmenttakesthepositionthatthestatuewaslikelylootedsometimeafter1960andthatCambodianationalizedownershipofitsantiquitiesnolaterthan1900.TheGovernment'sevidencethattheStatuewasinCambodiaafter1900isexceedinglythin.LootingofKhmersitesinCambodiahasbeenafactforathousandyears.Againstthishistory,theGovernmentoffersonlyasingle"expert's"beliefthattheStatuewastaken"sometimeafter1960."ComplaintPar.15.Buttheevidencethis"expert"reliesonismuchmorenaturallyviewedasleadingtotheoppositeconclusion.Theexpertprincipallycitesdocumentswritteninthe1930swhichdescribein"detail"thetemplesitefromwhichtheStatuecomesbutdonotreferencelooting,andphotosfromthe1950sand1960swhichtheexpertsaysshowlargestatuesstillpresentatthesite.
Id.
at15(a,b).Whatisapparentfromtheneedtorelyonthisverylimitedevidenceisthatthesepictures
donotshow
thisparticularStatuestillatthesite,andthatthe"detail[ed]"description
doesnot
refertotheStatue.
In
otherwords,theGovernmentappearstobeaskingtheCourttoinfertheStatuewasinCambodiainthe1960sfromdocumentsthatdonotrefertoitandpicturesthatdonotdisplayit.Thefarmorelogicalinference,plainly,isthat
 
WILMERHALE
Hon.GeorgeB.DanielsApril4,2012Page3theStatuewas
not
stillinCambodiawhenthedetailedsurveythatdoesnotmentionitwasmadeorwhenthepicturesthatdonotshowitweretaken.Ontopoftheseriousfactualissueshere,theGovernment'sreadingofCambodianlawis-tosaytheleast-novel.UNESCO,theU.N.organizationthataddressesculturalpropertyissues,maintainsanextensiveonlinedatabaseofNationalCulturalHeritageLaw.ThatdatabasedoesnotincludeanyoftheCambodianlawsonwhichtheGovernmentrelies.
See
ExhibitAattached.Accordingtopressaccounts,theselawswere"rediscovered"andannouncedtotheworldonlyveryrecently.
See
MythicWarriorisCaptiveinGlobal
Art
Conflict,NYTimes(February28,2012).WhilewehavenotyetbeenabletoobtainallofthelawsonwhichtheGovernmentrelies(muchlesstranslateoranalyzethem),wetrustthatthedueprocessissuesraisedbyrelianceonsucha"rediscovered"foreignlawtounderminethesettledexpectationsoftheconsignorarepatent.
See,e.g.,UnitedStates
v.
McClain,
593F.2d658,670-71(5
th
Cir.1979)(dueprocessrequiresthatforeignownershiplawbedrafted"withsufficientclaritytosurvivetranslationintotermsunderstandablebyandbindinguponAmericancitizens"andNationalStolenPropertyAct"cannotproperlybeappliedtoitemsdeemedstolenonlyonthebasisofunclearpronouncementsbyaforeignlegislature").Finally,thetimingoftheGovernment'sactionisparticularlycurious,asitcomeslessthanaweekafteranotherCourtdismissedasfaciallyinsufficientwhatwasplainlyafarstrongerforfeiturecomplaint.
SeeUnitedStates
v.
MaskofKa-Nefer-Nefer,
11Civ.504(E.D.Mo.March31,2012).There,theGovernment'sevidenceshowedthatanEgyptianmaskhadbeeninstorageatanEgyptiangovernmentstoragefacilityinthe1960sandhaddisappearedbytheearly1970s,beforeturningupintheglobalmarketin1998,andtherewasnorecordthatthemaskhadbeensoldorgiventoaprivatepartyintheinterveningyears.Nonetheless,theCourtdismissedtheGovernment'sforfeiturecomplaintforfailingtoallegesufficientfactstoestablishthatthemaskwasstolen,holdingthat"[t]heGovernmentcannotsimplyrestonitslaurelsandbelievethatitcaninitiateacivilforfeitureproceedingonthebasisofoneboldassertionthatbecausesomethingwentmissingfromonepartyin1973andturnedupwithanotherpartyin1998,itwasthereforestolenandlorimportedorexportedillegally."
In
Ka-Nefer-Nefer,
theGovernmentatleasthadevidencethatthestatuewasonceintheforeignstate'sactualpossession;herethecomplaintsuggeststhatthestatuewasnotmentionedinthesurveyandnotshowninthephotographsonwhichtheGovernmentrelies.IftheinferenceoftheftwasunavailabletotheGovernmentwithregardtoamaskthatdisappearedfromtheEgyptiangovernment'sstoreroomatsomeunknownpointwithinasingledecade,itsurelyisunavailableastoaStatuethatdisappearedfromajunglesiteinCambodiaatsomeunknownpointinthelastthousandyears.
***

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