A Cambodian boy walks at the Prasat Chen temple in the Koh Ker temple area in Preah Vihear province. File picture: AFP Photo/Tang Chhin Sothy

Phnom Penh - A US lawyer visited a Cambodian temple on Wednesday as part of a legal bid to force auction house Sotheby's to forfeit a 10th century Khmer statue so it can be returned to the country, officials said.

Assistant US Attorney Sharon Levin, who heads the asset forfeiture office, visited the northern Koh Ker temple to see the pedestal of the contested sandstone statue known as the Duryodhana, said government spokesman Ek Tha.

“She led a delegation to collect more data at the site in Koh Ker temple where the statue was looted,” he told AFP, adding that Levin had also met officials working on the case since arriving in Phnom Penh on Sunday.

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 added.

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.

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. - Sapa-AFP