A civil complaint filed by the U.S. federal government this week alleges that two artifacts in the collection of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum were looted from ancient temples in Thailand. According to a report by CBS SF and AP, the civil lawsuit requests that the museum return the two objects to Thailand, which has been investigating the origins of the pieces since 2016.
The Asian Art Museum announced in September that it planned to deaccession the artifacts in question, both of which are sandstone lintels, and that they were working with the Thai government to finalize their return, either “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 came following a three-year study of information conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Thai officials, the San Francisco City Attorney, and Asian Art Museum researchers and experts. The museum’s September statement added that the museum’s study “found no evidence that these lintels were removed from their sites contrary to the laws of Thailand” but that it “was also unable to locate copies of the export documents that the laws of that time required.”
The lintels, which were removed from view at the Asian Art Museum in 2017, are originally from present-day northern Thailand. One of the lintels dates to 1000–1080 C.E. and was situated at the Nong Hong Temple—it entered the museum’s collection in 1966 as part of a donation from the collector Avery Brundage, a former president of the International Olympic Committee, who helped prevent a U.S. boycott of the Games held in 1936 in Berlin. The other lintel dates to 975–1025 C.E. and is from Khao Lon Temple. It was purchased by the museum in 1968. (In September, the museum’s board voted to deaccession the two objects with plans to return them by next spring.)
“For years we have tried to get the Asian Art Museum to return this stolen artwork to Thailand,” David Anderson, U.S. attorney for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, said in a statement this week. “With this federal filing, we call on the Museum’s Board of Directors to do the right thing.”
Robert Mintz, deputy director of the Asian Art Museum, recently told CBS SF and AP, “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,” adding that “the lintels won’t go anywhere until the legal process is complete.”
The Asian Art Museum was notified in July that the U.S. attorney’s office planned to bring forth civil litigation to ensure the return of the two artifacts. In a letter sent to the U.S. attorney’s office, dated October 8, ahead of the filing, lawyers for the museum said they were “surprised” over the planned legal action and that the museum had previously statement that it “would prefer to return the lintels without litigation.”
The letter added, “It is the Museum’s fervent desire to return these two pieces to the Thai Government as a gesture of good will upon which the Museum and the Thai Government can continue to engage in thoughtful discussions and exchanges.”