US prosecutors announced they have launched civil action against auction house Sotheby's, seeking the forfeiture of a 10th century Khmer statue so it can be returned to.
Prosecutors say the sandstone statue, known as the Duryodhana, was stolen "during periods of extreme unrest" in Cambodia during the 1960s or 1970s -- an allegation the auction house strongly denied.
The statue -- which has an estimated value of between $2 million and $3 million -- was pulled from a Sotheby's sale in March 2011 after Cambodian authorities sent a letter via UNESCO demanding that it be returned to them.
Negotiations between the two sides have been fruitless.
In the civil complaint, the US attorney's office in New York claims the statue was stolen from Prasat Chen temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia before being illegally imported to New York from Europe.
A private collector turned the statue over to Sotheby's for the planned March 2011 auction. The house withdrew the item from the sale after receiving the letter from Cambodian authorities, but still retains possession.
"The Duryodhana statue is imbued with great meaning for the people of Cambodia," US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
"With today's action, we are taking an important step toward reuniting this ancient artifact with its rightful owners."
The statue was connected to the Koh Ker site because its base and feet remain at the temple from which it was stolen, archaeologist Eric Bourdonneau, a lecturer at the French School for Far Eastern Studies, told AFP.
Sotheby's issued a statement saying it was "disappointed" by the action taken by federal prosecutors.
"This was legally imported into the United States and all relevant facts were openly declared," it said.
"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 1,000 years nor is there any such evidence in this complaint."
Sotheby's said the auction house was willing to further discuss the statue's ownership with US and Cambodian government officials, but maintained its right to retain possession of the statue in the interim.
"We are disappointed that this action has been filed and we intend to defend it vigorously," Sotheby's said.