The U.S. government is demanding a San Francisco art museum return allegedly stolen religious relics to Thailand, a Justice Department statement says.
The government filed a civil complaint Monday seeking the forfeiture of two 1,500-pound decorative hand-carved lintels from San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, which the government alleges were looted from ancient temples in Thailand, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Northern District of California.
The lawsuit says the relics were illegally exported to a private collector in the U.S. and were then donated to the Asian Art Museum collection. The collection was given to the city and county of San Francisco, which used the lintels in the museum. After a Thai consulate general saw the lintels at the museum in 2016, Thailand launched an investigation, the complaint says according to SF Gate. (RELATED: US Museums Are Refusing To Return Art Stolen By Nazis)
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In 2017, the U.S. government learned that the lintels had allegedly been illegally exported from Thailand, and reached out to the San Francisco museum to negotiate their return to their country of origin, according to the statement.
“U.S. law requires U.S. museums to respect the rights of other countries to their own historical artifacts,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in a news release. “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.”
One of the lintels is from Nong Hong Temple and dates to 1000 to 1080 AD, and the other is from Khao Lon Temple and dates to 975 to 1025 AD, according to SF Gate. The museum claims that its own study found no evidence that the items were illegally obtained, but also did not provide copies of necessary export documents as called for by Thai law, so the museum removed the lintels from display and was planning to return them.
The museum had been negotiating with federal authorities and the Thai government since 2017, the museum’s deputy director Robert Mintz said, according to SFGate. The museum expected to finish the removal of the items in the spring, but are now waiting until the lengthy legal process is complete to remove them.
“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.” Mintz said, according to SFGate.