San Francisco Museum Agrees to Return Thai Relics

A settlement with the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco ensures that two ancient temple lintels will be returned to Thailand after they were exported to the United States.

Pictured is one of the two lintels from Thailand. (Credit: Department of Justice)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum will return two religious relics to Thailand under a settlement announced by the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday.

“I want to thank San Francisco and the Asian Art Museum for their agreement to forfeit these treasures so they may be returned to Thailand,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in a statement Wednesday. “The United States is committed to returning stolen relics to nations seeking to preserve their heritage.  We will use all our power, including civil forfeiture, to ensure that misappropriated cultural items are returned to their rightful owners.”

Museum Deputy Director Robert Mintz confirmed with Courthouse News on Wednesday that the museum’s plans to return the artifacts had long been in the works, and that it removed them in 2017. 

“In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security said there’s potentially an issue here,” Mintz said. “We took the artwork down from view and spent three years investigating in partnership with the DHS how these artworks were removed from Thailand.”

According to court documents, an archaeological survey confirmed that one lintel came from the Prasat Nong Hong Temple in Thailand’s Buriram Province. The archaeologist found it was a part of that temple until at least 1959. The other lintel was part of the Prasat Khao Lon Temple in the Sa Kaeo Province until at least 1967.

The Khao Lon lintel was purchased by the museum from a Paris gallery in 1967, Mintz said. The Nong Hong lintel was gifted to the museum in 1966 by former International Olympic Committee president and collector Avery Brundage, whose donation of 7,000 artworks formed its founding collection. Brundage purchased the Nong Hong lintel from an auction house and gallery in London.

The former Consul General of the Royal Thai Consulate in Los Angeles noticed the two 1,500-pound hand-carved decorative lintels belonging to two ancient temples on prominent display at the museum when he visited San Francisco in 2016.

Mintz said while they were alleged to have been stolen, “we have no evidence for how they left Thailand, period.” 

He also said the museum has no record of the former Consul General requesting their return.

“We combed through our records and found nothing that requested the repatriation of these lintels,” he said.

A statement posted on the museum’s website said a civil forfeiture lawsuit filed by the federal government in October came as a surprise. 

“The museum already had plans to return the lintels — plans that were made known to the federal government,” its statement said. 

As a city agency, the museum and its collection are owned by San Francisco.

“We have a very slow process, I will confess, to actually remove things from the city’s possession,” Mintz said.

“When the investigation began, we took seriously the need to look into this ourselves and we quickly came to the conclusion that this would result in their return to Thailand.

Our deliberative and slow process I think may have frustrated them. It’s a process that was going to take as long as it was always going to take,” he said.

Museum spokesman Zac Rose said the process is slow and deliberate by design “to ensure property is not removed from the city’s care rashly or harshly. There’s a balance to it. Even though it does feel slow, it was clear what the outcome was going to be.”

Under the settlement, the government will work with Thai authorities to repatriate the lintels, which will be placed on exhibition in Thailand.

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