U.S. Govt Demands Asian Art Museum Return Looted Artifacts to Thailand

The United States has filed a lawsuit against San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, requesting that it return two allegedly looted artifacts to Thailand.

Oct 28, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
Sandstone Lintel from Khao Long Temple, 975-1025, Northeastern Thailand, via the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; with Interior of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, 2016, via San Francisco Chronicle


The United States government has filed a lawsuit compelling the San Francisco Asian Art Museum to return allegedly looted artifacts to Thailand. The status of the artifacts has been contended by the Museum, Thai officials and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since 2017.


In a news release, David L. Anderson, United States Attorney of the Northern District of California said, “U.S. Law requires U.S. museums to respect the rights of other countries to their own historical artifacts…For years we have tried to get the Asian Art Museum to return this stolen artwork to Thailand. With this federal filing, we call on the Museum’s Board of Directors to do the right thing.”


Special Agent in Charge Tatum King also said, “Returning a nation’s cultural antiquities promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world’s cultural history and knowledge of past civilizations…Through our work in this investigation, we hope to ensure the relationship between the United States and Thailand remains one of mutual respect and admiration. This will help Thailand’s cultural heritage to be fully restored for the appreciation of this and future generations.” 


You can view the official civil complaint here


The Looted Artifacts In Question


Sandstone Lintel with Yama, deity of the underworld, from Nong Hong Temple, 1000-1080, Northeastern Thailand, via the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

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The complaint requests the return of two hand-carved, 1,500-pound sandstone lintels to Thailand. According to the Museum, they are both from ancient religious temples; one is dated between 975-1025 AD and is from the Khao Lon Temple in Sa Keao Province and the other is dated between 1000-1080 AD and is from the Nong Hong Temple in Buriram Province. 


The allegedly looted artifacts were then exported without a license to the United States, after which they came into the possession of a noted Southeast Asian art collector. They were then donated to San Francisco City and County, and are now held in the city’s Asian Art Museum.


Sandstone Lintel from Khao Long Temple, 975-1025, Northeastern Thailand, via the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco


San Francisco Asian Art Museum: Investigation And Lawsuit 


The investigation of the lintels began after the Consul General of the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles saw them being displayed in the San Francisco Museum in 2016. 


The museum claimed that its own investigation did not yield evidence that the lintels were illegally looted artifacts. However, it also did not find any proof of legal exportation in the form of documents, so the Asian Art Museum took the lintels off display and planned to return them. 


The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, 2003, via KTLA5, Los Angeles


In September of this year, the Museum announced that it would be deaccessioning the two lintels, saying, “The Asian Art Museum anticipates deaccessioning two sandstone lintels and aims to present the works for a return to the ancient monuments in Thailand where they originated or to a Thai museum that the Thai government may consider appropriate to provide custody. The decision to deaccession these artworks comes after a three-year-long study of information provided and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Thai officials, the San Francisco City Attorney, and Asian Art Museum experts.” 


Robert Mintz, the Museum’s deputy director, stated that he found the lawsuit surprising after the ongoing negotiations with Thai officials and the Department of Homeland Security, reports CBS San Francisco. Apparently, the legal process of removing the items from the Asian Art Museum was meant to be completed by this spring. However, Mintz stated that in light of recent events, “the lintels won’t go anywhere until the legal process is complete.”


“We’re surprised by this filing and we’re disappointed that it seems to throw up a roadblock to what seemed like positive and developing negotiations,” added Mintz.

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By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.