May 26, 2021

Theft to Restitution: a timeline of two 9th and 10th century architectural lintels returning to the Thai people after 50 long years

Tatum King, Special Agent in Charge, Homeland Security Investigations with Mungkorn Pratoomkaew, Consul-General of Thailand

While everyone is celebrating the long-overdue restitution to Thailand of the two stolen Khmer lintels, ARCA thought a bit of context might add some additional points to ponder when taking in the carefully-worded, announcements of cultural diplomacy and restitution.

Starting with this work in progress chronology:

25 October 1926
During the reign of King Rama VII, the first law on the export of antiques and objects of art in the country of Siam comes into force. 

The preamble to this law states that in advanced countries the government has the responsibility to conserve antiques and objects of art for the benefit and education of the people. 

This law defined terms for antiques and objects of art, as follows:

Antique, referred to any ancient moveable article, whether originating in Siam or elsewhere, which has value for knowledge or for studying the chronicles and archaeology.

Object of Art referred to a rare article created by craftsmen of special skill.

The Siam Act banned the export of antiques and objects of art without permission from the Royal Institute, and imposed penalties of imprisonment of up to three months, or a fine up to 3,000 baht, or both to violaters.  The Act also set out procedures for applying for permission to export, including presenting the article for inspection, and authorising the search of vehicles, and empowering the court to seize suspect objects without compensation.

23-24 June 1932
A bloodless coup d'état takes place in Siam in a rebellion led by Pridi Phanomyong and Colonel Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Pibul Sonngram) against King Prajadhipok's government.  This event transforms the country's absolute monarchy into a new constitutional monarchy.

30 June 1932 - 20 June 1933 
Phraya Manopakorn serves briefly as prime minister until he is deposed in a subsequent military coup. 

3 April 1933
King Rama VII suspends the constitution and establishes a Council of State.

20-21 June 1933
Three months later, Colonel Phraya Phahon Phonphayuhasena leads a successful rebellion against the Council of State and is appointed as Prime Minister.

1934 written, 1935 comes into force
The country of Siam enacts its first somewhat comprehensive Act on Ancient Monuments, Objects of Art, Antiques and National Museums, which will come into force in 1935.

This act introduces new definitions of antique, ancient monument, object of art, and museum and commands the director-general of the FAD to draw up a registry of ancient monuments, including Buddhist wat (temples) and other religious buildings, both those that have existing owners and those that are ownerless. The heritage act further requires that the director-general has to inform owners in writing of the requirements for registration and if the owner objects to said registration, the matter is to be taken up and adjudicated by a minister. 

Once a monument was entered on the register, it could not be transferred, repaired, modified, altered, or destroyed without written permission from the director-general, and then within conditions imposed by the director-general.  The Act further prohibited the removal of property from Siam that is culturally and/or historically significant except under limited circumstances. 

2 March 1935
King Rama VII abdicates in favour of his nephew, Prince Ananda Mahidol.

24 June 1939
The country of Siam, called Mueang Thai by its citizens, is officially renamed Thailand according to the decision of Field Marshal PlaekPhibunsongkhram, the Prime Minister of Thailand during the Pacific War.

1943
An amending heritage Act is passed by Thailand which removes the requirement for the director-general to gain approval from the minister for the movement of objects between national museums, for disbursements from the central fund, and for the payment of rewards. 

1946 to 1948
Thailand is renamed Siam again for a brief period of two years, after which it again reverted to "Thailand".

1958
The Society for Asian Art is incorporated as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded by a group of individuals dedicated to winning Chicago industrialist, Avery Brundage's art collection for the city of San Francisco.

Among the early organizers active in courting Brundage in hopes that he will donate his extensive art collection to San Francisco are Elizabeth Hay Bechtel, Jane Smyth Brown, Katharine Caldwell, Dorothy Erskine, Gwin Follis, Martha Gerbode, Edwin Grabhorn, Alice Kent, Kitty and Charles Page, Marjorie Bissinger Seller, Mrs. Ferdinand Smith, Wallace B. Smith, Marjorie Stern, and Joe Yuey.  

1959
After considering a number of other major cities, including Chicago, the donor's hometown,  Avery Brundage agrees to donate 7,700 Asian artworks to the city of San Francisco on the condition that the California city builds a museum to house the artefacts and agrees to details outlined in the draft contractual agreement.   Once executed, Brundage's donation ultimately forms the primary core of the collection eventually held by the proposed San Francisco museum.


1960-1961
Black and white photo documentation from a site survey by Manit Wallipodom conducted sometime between 1960 and 1961 shows that a lintel, dating from 1000-1080 CE depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld, remains in situ at Prasat Nong Hong, a Khmer sanctuary in Buriram Province, Thailand which dates to the 16th Buddhist century, and is comprised of three brick pagodas built on the same laterite base and surrounded by a laterite wall with a moat.

1961
The 1961 Act on Ancient Monuments, Antiques, Objects of Art and National Museums, B.E. 2504 comes into force in Thailand deeming cultural objects such as temple lintels, state property.  This law specifically forbids the unlicensed export of archaeological artefacts from registered archaeological sites.

An amendment of Clause 24 extends coverage to, “Antiques or objects of art buried in, concealed or abandoned within the Kingdom or the Exclusive Economic Zone,” where the Exclusive Economic Zone includes the territorial waters of Thailand.

Date Unknown, possibly on/around 2508 Thai (1965) 
The architectural lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld, spanning a doorway at Prasat Nong Hong in Buriram Province is looted.

Date Unknown
The architectural lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld, which once spanned a doorway at Prasat Nong Hong in Buriram Province is illegally exported out of Thailand without the benefit of an export license.

1966
The lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld, from Prasat Nong Hong in Buriram Province is purchased by Avery Brundage in London, UK.  In the Verified Complaint for Civil Forfeiture In Rem, filed in the US Courts in the Northern District of California - San Francisco Division, the name of this auction house/gallery is not revealed and is cited simply as "Gallery 1."

Subsequent to its purchase in the UK, the architectural lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld from Prasat Nong Hong in Buriram Province is imported into the United States in violation of Thai law, and as such constitutes stolen, smuggled, and/or clandestinely imported or introduced merchandise pursuant to Title 19, United States Code, Section 1595a(c)(1)(A).

August 1966
Scholar Michael Sullivan estimates that the Avery Brundage's private collection includes at least 5,000 objects, of which three-fifths are Chinese, 500 are Japanese, 300 are Korean, and the remaining being from the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia.  

Later in 1966
After its import, the lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld from Prasat Nong Hong also joins the promised collection to be gifted by Avery Brundage to the future Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

"With respect to the lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld from Prasat Nong Hong, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco had several letters documenting exchanges between Brundage and representatives of "Gallery 1" concerning the purchase of art.  Among other things, one of the representatives of "Gallery 1" and Brundage exchanged letters concerning the potential that at least one lintel that Brundage had purchased had been stolen from Thailand and that another artefact had been taken out of Thailand illegally. 

These records also included archaeological surveys from Thailand, indicating that the lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld had been removed from Prasat Nong Hong temple. These communications concretise that the museum's donor was at least peripherally aware that at least a portion of his collection had been illegally exported from Thailand and that the museum itself had records that concretised the suspect nature of the artefact. 

1967
Photo documentation from a survey done by M. C. Subhadradis Diskul shows that a lintel, depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland, dating from 975-1025 CE, remains in situ at Prasat Khao Lon, a brick temple in Khmer architectural style, built approximately in the early 11th century, located in Charoensuk Village, Taprach sub-district, Tapraya district, Sakaeo province.

Date Unknown
The architectural lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland spanning a doorway at Prasat Khao Lon in Sakaeo province is looted.

Date Unknown
The architectural lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland, which once spanned a doorway at Prasat Khao Lon in Sakaeo province, is illegally exported out of Thailand without the benefit of an export license.

Between 1968 and 1969
Negotiations are underway with Avery Brundage regarding the city of San Francisco receiving the second part of his collection.   Talks are started at the end of John Francis "Jack" Shelley's tenure as the city's mayor and continue through Mayor-elect Joseph L. Alioto who began the first of his two terms of office in 1968. 

In furtherance of this goal, Mayor Alioto and the Board of Supervisors draft a municipal ordinance that will formally establish the museum, then called the Center for Asian Art and Culture.  This independent municipal entity is to be governed by the Asian Art Commission. In addition, the Asian Art Museum Foundation is created to function as the institution's principal fundraiser. 

Once registered, the new museum is initially opened as a wing of the  M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park.

1968
The lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland is purchased by the Asian Art Museum from a Paris gallery with the advice of Avery Brundage.

Subsequent to its purchase the architectural lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland is imported into the United States in violation of Thai Law, and constitutes stolen, smuggled, and/or clandestinely imported or introduced merchandise pursuant to Title 19, United States Code, Section 1595a(c)(1)(A).

1968
The lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland is accessioned into the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. 

According to the Verified Complaint for Civil Forfeiture In Rem, filed in the Northern District of California - San Francisco Division, letters between Avery Brundage and representatives of an again unnamed gallery, cited simply as "Gallery 2" concerning the lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland indicate that a Thai lintel in Brundage's possession has been reported as stolen by the Thai government and the Thai government had asked Avery Brundage to return said lintel. Avery Brundage subsequently seeks the advice of a representative of "Gallery 2" regarding the situation. 

The records included a copy of an article published in the Bangkok Post which describes the lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland as being present in the United States and indicated that, according to the leader of a Thai archaeological conservation group, Thai officials want to recover the lintel as it had been improperly looted from Thailand. 

1973 
The Center for Asian Art and Culture is rebranded as the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

June 1973
Avery Brundage marries Princess Mariann Charlotte Katharina Stefanie von Reuss, daughter of Heinrich XXXVII, Prince of Reuss-Köstritz.  She is 37 years old.  He is 85. 

8 May 1975
Avery Brundage dies. 

3 March 1977
According to the Royal Gazette no 52, The Fine Art Department announces that Prasat Nong Hong has been listed as a national historic site.

1987
San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein proposes a plan to revitalize Civic Center which includes relocating the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which has outgrown its Golden Gate Park location, to the stately beaux-arts library building designed in 1917 by architect George Kelham.

1988
San Francisco’s Main Library is slated to move to a new facility and the city begins to redesign the 1917 library facilities into its new state-of-the-art home for the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco collection. 

16 July 1989
According to the Royal Gazette no 106, chapter 112, The Fine Art Department announced that Prasat Khao Lon has also been listed as a national historic site.

2003
Renovations orchestrated by Italian architect Gae Aulenti are complete on the former San Francisco library and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco moves into its newly designed 163,000 square-foot museum space located at Civic Center Plaza.  It is now the largest institution of exclusively Asian arts in the United States.

By 2010
Of the approximate18,000 objects held by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, approximately 40% are derived from donations made by the museum's founding collector Avery Brundage.


Late July 2012
Activists with the Asians Art Museum's Samurai Blog create edible tortilla art which features a graphic representation of Avery Brundage as a severed Buddha head.  They distribute these food treats to museum-goers at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco along with a highly critical flyer about the founding donor's collecting ethics surrounding his acquisitions and his subsequent donations to the museum. 


At this point, the San Francisco museum's administration should have no doubt, that not just art historians, but members of the local Asian community in San Francisco have begun to have concerns regarding the acquisition practices of the museum's founding donor as well as the ethical responsibility of the museum to address the city taxpayers' concerns. 



2 August 2016
The Facebook Group สำนึก ๓๐๐ องค์ publishes its own concerns regarding Avery Brundage's acquisitions.  Activists post photos of the architectural lintel depicting  Yama, the deity of the underworld from Prasat Nong Hong on their group's Facebook page which is dedicated to identifying looted Thai heritage. The series of photos depict the temple, with the lintel in situ prior to its theft.  The social media post further records that the artefact is on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.  

NB, This Civil Society Organization will go on to raise awareness and identify a series of suspect Thai sculptures and architectural artefacts in various museums around the globe.

August 2016
A Peace Corps member based in Thailand emails the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco imploring the museum to return the lintel depicting  Yama, the deity of the underworld from Prasat Nong Hong to the local community. 

on/around 24 September 2016
The Consul General of the Royal Thai Consulate General in Los Angeles, California visits the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and observes both looted lintels on prominent display in the museum. 

Subsequently, the Royal Thai Consulate General speaks with the lead curator of the museum and expresses his desire for these two artefacts to be returned to their country of origin. 

The museum, however, made no further communication with the consul general or any Thai official until nudged into action by the formal US federal investigation. 

31 May 2017
The Thai Minister of Culture meets with the Chargé d'affaires at the United States Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand along with a Special Agent from Homeland Security Investigations.  During this meeting, the Thai Minister informs the Chargé that Thai officials had reviewed the evidence regarding the architectural lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld illegally removed from Prasat Nong Hong and the lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland, illegally removed from Prasat Khao Lon, both of which are held at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.  After their review, the Thai authorities conclude that the artefacts have been illegally exported from the country while both architectural elements were protected under the laws in place in Siam/Thailand since 1935. 

In making their case for the objects' return, the Fine Arts Department of Thailand had commissioned two archaeological surveys outlining the provenance of the lintels. One survey placed the lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld at the Prasat Nong Hong Temple in Non Din Daeng District, Buriram Province, Thailand in place at least until, at least up until 1959. 

Subsequent archaeological photos record the lintel in situ until the survey season of 1960/61. 

The second archaeological survey placed the lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland at the Prasat Khao Lon Temple, Ta Phraya District, Sa Kaeo Province where the object was photographed in situ as late as 1967.

13 June 2017
Thailand forms a restitution committee with the established mission of reclaiming Thailand’s plundered historical artefacts from foreign nations. 

2017
The US Government informally brings the issue of the plundered architectural lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld illegally removed from Prasat Nong Hong and the plundered lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland to the attention of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco informing them of the rights of the Thai government as a potential claimant to the artefacts.  Subsequent to this meeting, both artefacts are removed from public view but no statements are forthcoming from the museum's management regarding any decision to voluntary restitute the stolen artefacts.

November 2017
The US Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) sends Thailand photos of 69 ancient artefacts for examination and verification as possibly suspect as having been illegally brought into the US.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thailand,  HSI sent the photos to the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles and requested the Thai authorities to examine and verify if they were from Thailand.

October/November 2018 
Following a one-year investigation by a ministerial committee, assisted by experts from the National Museum in Bangkok, the Kingdom of Thailand’s culture minister announces the Thai government’s demand for the return of 23 antiquities, including the two lintels at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, as well as other objects in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art all parts of collections since the late 1960s.

January 2020
Another two years go by and the US. attorney's office in the Northern District of California sends the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco a list of national archaeology sites that were appended to Thailand’s 1935 law.   Listed among the sites are the two temples where the two contested lintels in the museum's collection come from.

June 2020
Facing increasing criticism surrounding Avery Brundage's well-documented antisemitic, racist, and sexist views, pervasive throughout his career, as well as questions around restitution, Dr. Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, advises the press that the museum plans to eventually move Avery Brundage's commemorative bronze bust, created by artist Jean Sprenger and on display in the museum's lobby, to “a discreet space” where the public can learn about museum's donor and “where the core of our collection came from.” 

Xu also indicates that the museum will hold public programs to critically examine Brundage and his legacy, “as well as questions around provenance and restitution.”

July 2020
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is formally notified that the U.S. attorney’s office is planning civil litigation to ensure the return of the plundered architectural lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld illegally removed from Prasat Nong Hong and the plundered lintel depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland from Prasat Khao Lon.


6 July 2020
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco places a white box over Avery Brundage's commemorative bronze bust.

on/around 13 July 2020

August 2020
The Bangkok Post reports that according to the Thai Department of Fine Arts (DFA), the lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld from Prasat Nong Hong and the lintel, depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland from Prasat Khao Lon in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco are predicted to be returned to Thailand in March 2021.

24 August 2020
The Thai Public Broadcasting Service  (องค์การกระจายเสียงและแพร่ภาพสาธารณะแห่งประเทศไทย produces a documentary (in Thai) outlining the facts surrounding the stories of the contested lintels removed from Thailand.


22 September 2020
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco releases a statement saying that the museum's board is noted to have begun the deaccession process for the lintel depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld from Prasat Nong Hong and the lintel, depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland from Prasat Khao Lon.  Note that this decision only seems to have moved forward four years after attention was drawn to their suspect status.


In its press release, the museum further stated:
"The museum’s study found no evidence that these lintels were removed from their sites contrary to the laws of Thailand, but the museum was also unable to locate copies of the export documents that the laws of that time required. With this information in hand, the museum felt it was appropriate to begin the process of deaccessioning the artworks from the collection and to move forward with returning them to the Thai authorities."

8 October 2020
Ahead of the upcoming civil filing, lawyers from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco sends a letter to the U.S. attorney’s office, indicating the museum's surprise over the government's plan for legal action and that the museum had previously stated that it “would prefer to return the lintels without litigation.”  

In filing the complaint with the court, under Title 19, United States Code, Section 1595a(c)(1)(A) and Title 28, United States Code, Sections 1345 and 1355 it is believed that the lintels constitute merchandise that has been introduced into the United States contrary to law, as the property was stolen, smuggled, and/or clandestinely imported or introduced into the United States. 

30 October 2020 
Speaking with regards to the formal complaint in an Art Newspaper article, Robert Mintz, deputy director for art and programs at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum,  contends that the process for repatriating both lintels was already underway prior to the civil complaint.  Mintz tells the newspaper that “Deaccessioning requires two votes, separated by six months’ time,” indicating that this was the reason for the museum's apparently sluggish March 2021 date for potential restitution.   

Mintz doesn't seem to recollect that the museum was first informally notified by the US authorities of the problems with these Thai artefacts in 2017, and after having been queried by the Royal Thai Consulate General in 2016. Time enough to have allowed the board to meet a minimum of six times to address the deaccession of these problematic pieces prior to the filing of the US Federal Complaint.

10 February 2021
The United States and the City and County of San Francisco enter into a settlement agreement signed by U.S. District Court Magistrate Donna M. Ryu, in which San Francisco consents to the forfeiture to the United States of the Lintel with Yama, the deity of the underworld, 1000-1080 (Lintel 1) and the Lintel, 975-1025. Northeastern Thailand, Khao Lon Temple, Sa Kaeo province (Lintel 2).

Upon the completion of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s deaccessioning process for the Thai lentils in March 2021, their repatriation to Thailand should move forward.

The Thai lintels, according to the agreement, will be returned to Thailand through the U.S. Department of Justice’s victim remission program. Upon their return, the lintels will be placed on exhibition for the religious and cultural appreciation of the people of Thailand.   


25 May 2021
The Thai lintels depicting Yama, the deity of the underworld from Prasat Nong Hong and the lintel, depicting a deity or devata sitting over a Kala face that is disgorging garland from Prasat Khao Lon are handed over to Thai authorities in Los Angeles during a formal handover ceremony attend by Mungkorn Pratoomkaew,  Consul-General of Thailand and carried out by Tatum King, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Francisco.

In an interview with the Star Tribune David Keller, the Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent who oversaw this case over the last four years said that officials believe that European dealers illegally exported the lintels out of Thailand.

28 May 2021 (Thai 2564)
The two Thai lintels are expected to fly back home via Korean Air and to arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday evening local time.  Once back on Thai soil, they will be received by officials from the Fine Arts Department and then put on public display at the National Museum until July.

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