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Lintel with Yama, deity of the underworld (ca. 1000-1080), sandstone, Northeastern Thailand, Nong Hong Temple, Buriram province (the Avery Brundage Collection; photo © Asian Art Museum)

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Following a three-year government probe, two sandstone lintels from the ninth and 10th centuries have been repatriated to Thailand. The hand-carved, 1,500-pound lintels, which hail from protected religious sanctuaries in northeastern Thailand, had been in the collection of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, which is owned by the city of San Francisco, for more than five decades. In a ceremony in Los Angeles on May 25, the lintels began what Manasvi Srisodapol, Thailand’s Ambassador to the United States, called their “sacred journey back home.” The pair will soon go on display at the Bangkok National Museum in Phra Nakhon.

With over 18,000 artifacts in its collection, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum is the largest museum exclusively dedicated to Asian art in the United States. It was founded in 1966 to house the art collection of Avery Brundage, an industrialist and 20-year International Olympic Committee president who donated his collection of over 7,000 Asian artworks and antiquities to the city of San Francisco starting in 1959. Brundage purchased one lintel in 1966; the other was a museum purchase in 1968. Both lintels were bought from European dealers and went on view at the museum in the late 1960s.

Archaeologist Tanongsak Hanwong was conducting research in 2016 when he discovered images of the lintels in the San Francisco museum’s collection. Tanongsak initiated an online campaign for their return, and later that year, the Thai consul general visited the museum in person. In May 2017, the Thai government issued an official request for the artifacts’ repatriation. So began a three-year probe led by Homeland Security Investigations, which works with foreign governments to combat the trafficking of cultural artifacts.

Lintel (ca. 975-1025), sandstone, Northeastern Thailand, Khao Lon Temple, Sa Kaeo province. (Museum Purchase; photo © Asian Art Museum)

Research revealed that the lintels were from Nong Hong Temple, dated 1000-1080, and Khao Lon Temple, dated 975-1025. While the exact date that the lintels were taken from the temples is unknown, photos depict the lintels in situ as late as the 1950s. These sacred sites, located in northeastern Thailand, had been protected by Thai law since the 1930s. Exhaustive research failed to unearth any evidence of the export licenses mandated under Thai law at the time.

The Asian Art Museum had already announced plans to begin the process of deaccessioning the lintels because of the lack of proper export documentation when the Department of Justice filed a civil forfeiture complaint in October 2020. The museum said that the complaint, which was settled in February 2021, “came as a surprise.”

“The museum was deeply concerned that the complaint, apart from being unmerited, would hamper our existing plans to return the two lintels as swiftly as possible,” a statement read.

The complaint alleged that the lintels were removed from Thailand illegally, but the museum argued that there was “no affirmative evidence of that fact.” The museum suggested that the US Department of Justice was conflating the two lintels with a third lintel belonging to Brundage. Brundage repatriated the third lintel, which was never in the Asian Art Museum’s collection, in 1970 after he received a letter from the Thai government informing him that it was stolen. In June 2020, the museum removed a bust of Brundage, a fixture by the visitor’s entrance, in response to criticisms that the founding patron was racist and anti-Semitic.

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Cassie Packard

Cassie Packard is an NYC-based writer and cultural critic with bylines at publications including Artforum, BOMB, frieze, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.