Looted temple lintels repatriated to Thailand

Two hand-carved lintels have been returned to Thailand 50 years after they were stolen from ancient temples and smuggled out of the country. They were officially handed over to officials from the Royal Thai Consulate in a ceremony that included traditional Thai dancers and prayers at Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The 1,500-pound sandstone lintels were carved in the pre-Angkorean Baphuon style in the 9th-10th century when Thailand was part of the Khmer Empire. They were stolen from the Nong Hong Temple and the Khao Lon Temple in northeastern Thailand in the 1960s. The last time the Nong Hong lintel was documented in its original location was 1959. The Khao Lon lintel was in place until at least 1967. Avery Brundage, then President of the International Olympic Committee and an insatiable collector of Asian art, bought the former from a London auction house in 1966 and the latter from a gallery in Paris in 1968.

Brundage donated some of his enormous collection to the city of San Francisco and the Asian Art Museum was built to house it in 1966. He bequeathed the rest of his collection to his museum after his death in 1975. Today the museum has 7,700 Brundage pieces in its 17,000 piece collection. The problem is Brundage, a notorious anti-Semite and racist, gave not a single rat’s ass about the ownership histories of any of the loot in his collection, so now the museum is paying the price for Brundage’s cavalier covetousness.

The worm turned on the lintels in 2016. A picture of one of the lintels caught the eye of a Thai non-profit cultural heritage organization and in September of that year, Consul General of the Royal Thai Consulate in Los Angeles visited in person. He told museum curators that the lintels had been stolen and Thailand wanted them back. The museum ghosted him and other Thai officials until the Department of Justice opened an investigation in 2017.

After a long and thorough investigation, the US Attorney’s filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the City of San Francisco in October, 2020. It detailed the evidence that the lintels had been stolen, including correspondence between Brundage and both the London and Paris galleries concerning archaeological evidence that the lintels had been looted and appeals from Thai officials for their return.

The museum’s argument was that there was no explicit proof that the lintels were stolen, but temples do not willingly sell pieces of themselves, especially structural features carved with scenes of religious import, and Thai laws going back to 1935 prohibit the export of protected cultural artifacts except under extremely limited circumstances which require a license. They also claim the letters between Brundage and his loot suppliers were talking about a third piece which Brundage returned to Thailand in 1970. Those dogs didn’t hunt, as the saying goes, and in February 2021 the parties settled the case with the museum agreeing to consent to the forfeiture.

The lintels are scheduled to arrive in Thailand on Friday. After an initial examination by experts from the Thai Fine Arts Department, the carved stones will go on display at the Bangkok National Museum for three months.

4 thoughts on “Looted temple lintels repatriated to Thailand

  1. Finally!! Accurate reporting!! The museum’s claim to not have received evidence is blatant lie. Their failure to open dialogue with Thailand in 2016 when visited by the Thai Consul General was a disgusting display of unethical museum practices. Jay Xu is wrong! The AAM and ICOM should call the museum out. The lie that the museum put out in the media that they tried to negotiate with Thailand compounds their elitist stance. The SF AAM is a public institution which represents the people of SF. Shame, Shame, Shame!! These morons failed to even look at the history in California of stolen Thai Culture and corrupt museums (The Bowers Museum, LACMA, etc.) The inane city attorneys contributed to this by prolonging the SF stupidity and trying to negotiate with Thailand without their representation present. The city attorneys even claimed that Thailand was not sophisticated enough have accurate records from the era in which the lintels were stolen!! That thought pattern in and of itself is racist.

    The sites from where the lintels were stolen were designated as protected archaeological sites in 1935, under Thai Law. Archaeological surveys clearly illustrate where they were located. The museum had no provenance going back to the origins of the lintels. No documents / licenses from the government of Thailand to possess or export the lintels…yet the clowns at the museum continue to claim there was no evidence.

    They are wrong. They are bullies. They should be removed from their positions.

    This story is not over! There are numerous objects from Thailand and SE Asia that were bought by Brundage. Thai Patrimony law beats out UNESCO. It is comprehensive and goes back a long way. The obtuse criminals at the SF AAM fail to recognize this and somehow think they are “rightful owners” of SE Asian culture. They are among the worst types of people…much like their revered benefactor who willed his stolen collection, his spoils of wealth, to this city and its filthy institution.

    Public corruption is a well documented culture in SF… Jay Xu, Robert Mintz and all those thugs in the SF AAM are all complicit in promoting that culture.

    This was a good win for Thailand…

  2. Bangkok – Here we come. Returning looted items of significance to the rightful owners is a step in the right direction. Practicing and upholding ethical behavior is a win-win situation. Hats off to the City of San Francisco and Thailand. Well done.

  3. The city of SF fought this return for 4 years. Nothing ethical in SF or that museum… Educate yourself. Homeland Security Investigations returned those lintels. The whole population of the Bay Area is apparently just fine with being obtuse.

  4. Jay Xu at the SF Asian Art Museum is an Asian Uncle Tom!! His management of the Lintel situation was racist in nature and the act of a bully. The bullies in this case were both the museum and the filthy city of SF. I can’t wait to see what else has to be given up!

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