City, Asian Art Museum agree to return two Thai religious relics

Federal prosecutors announced Wednesday the settlement of a 2020 forfeiture action concerning two ancient relics from Thailand in the possession...

Federal prosecutors announced Wednesday the settlement of a 2020 forfeiture action concerning two ancient relics from Thailand in the possession of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Under the settlement, the city of San Francisco and the museum will relinquish any claim to the objects so they may be returned to the Kingdom of Thailand.

The settlement, when fully implemented, will end more than 50 years of the museum’s possession of the historic pieces.

The objects at the center of the controversy are a pair of thousand-year-old lintels — architectural pieces positioned horizontally between vertical columns or supports — that came from two religious sites in Thailand.

In an interview when the complaint was originally filed, Zac Rose, a spokesperson for the museum, explained that the lintels — each weighing close to a ton — have been part of the museum’s collection since its opening in 1966, and were on public display for many years.

The museum is an agency of the city, according to Rose, and the collection and the museum are owned by the city. The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office represented the museum in the forfeiture action.

The conflict began in September 2016 when the Consul General of the Royal Thai General in Los Angeles visited the museum and saw the lintels on display, according to the government’s complaint. The consul general allegedly said he desired to see the lintels returned to Thailand.

Thereafter, the Thai Minister of Culture met with representatives of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Thailand and said that “the lintels belonged to two ancient temples in Northeastern Thailand and were designated as cultural artifacts protected under the laws of Thailand since 1935,” according to the complaint.

The lintels were donated to the museum by an art collector referred to in the government’s complaint as “COLLECTOR 1,” who Rose identified as Avery Brundage, the former head of the International Olympic Committee.

Brundage was a wealthy collector of East Asian art and the “founding donor” of the museum, to which he donated more than 7,000 pieces from his collection.

Brundage’s bust was prominently displayed at the museum until 2020, when it was taken down due to his record of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic beliefs, according to Rose.

“It just didn’t reflect our mission and our vision and our values as a public institution. We are trying to live our values,” he said.

The forfeiture complaint alleged that exporting the lintels from Thailand violated Thai law. Under U.S. law, the lintels “constitute stolen, smuggled, and/or clandestinely imported or introduced merchandise,” according to the government.

Rose said that upon learning of the Thai claim in 2017, the museum put the lintels in storage and gave the U.S. Department of Homeland Security access to the objects and the related records “so they could do their provenance research and understand the history of ownership.”

Thereafter, the museum decided to return the lintels to Thailand and in 2018 began the process of “deaccessioning” the works, Rose said.

The process went slowly, according to Rose, because “It’s a very, very complex thing. Museums are complex organizations. And because we’re a city agency, we also have a very, very strict set of tenets and governance laws and it requires multiple committees to approve it.”

According to Rose, the museum has been moving forward since 2018 to do all the things necessary to deaccession the works, and to identify a Thai partner to take possession.

The stipulation of settlement recognizes that “The deaccessioning process, while not legally required, comports with the protocols and procedures in place at the Asian Art Museum and the parties agree are appropriate in this matter.”

The parties further stipulated that “upon completion of the deaccessioning process, [the city] will relinquish all right, title, and interest in the defendant properties and… said properties shall be forfeited to the United States and disposed of according to law.”

The settlement gives the museum until April 9 to complete the deaccessioning process and provides that if it is not completed by that date, the forfeiture action will resume.

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