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Press Release

United States Files Civil Action To Repatriate Thai Religious Relics Housed At The San Francisco Asian Art Museum

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of California
Thai Lintels Allegedly Were Exported Illegally from Thailand

SAN FRANCISCO – The United States filed a civil complaint to forfeit and repatriate two religious relics identified as having been illegally exported from Thailand, announced United States Attorney David L. Anderson of the Northern District of California and Homeland Security Investigations (NorCal) Special Agent in Charge Tatum King.  The civil complaint can be viewed here:

According to the complaint, the two 1,500-pound hand-carved decorative lintels originally were located in ancient religious temples in Thailand, were removed illegally, and thereafter were exported from Thailand without a license.  The complaint alleges the Thai lintels became part of a large collection held by a noted collector of South and Southeast Asian art.  The collection was bequeathed to the City and County of San Francisco, which used the collection, including the lintels, for display in the Asian Art Museum.  In 2017, the federal government learned that these lintels had been illegally exported from Thailand, rendering them forfeitable as property present in the United States “contrary to law,” and reached out to the Asian Art Museum to negotiate their return. 

“U.S. law requires U.S. museums to respect the rights of other countries to their own historical artifacts,” U.S. Attorney Anderson said. “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.”

“Returning a nation’s cultural antiquities promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world’s cultural history and knowledge of past civilizations,” said Special Agent in Charge King. “The theft and trafficking of cultural artifacts is a tradition as old as the cultures they represent. Federal importation laws provide HSI the authority to take a leading role in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property and art. Customs laws allow HSI to seize cultural property and art that are brought into the United States illegally, especially when objects have been reported lost or stolen. Through our work in this investigation, we hope to ensure the relationship between the United States and Thailand remains one of mutual respect and admiration. This will help Thailand’s cultural heritage to be fully restored for the appreciation of this and future generations.”

The civil complaint merely alleges that certain property is subject to forfeiture.  The United States must prove, by a standard of preponderance of the evidence, that the items are subject to forfeiture.  If the United States prevails, the court will order all interests of any potential claimant forfeit, including the City and County of San Francisco, and the United States will provide Thai officials with information as to the Department of Justice’s remission and restoration process via the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Chris Kaltsas of the Northern District of California and Amanda M. Bettinelli of the Central District of California are prosecuting the forfeiture with the assistance of Irene Zhu.  The forfeiture action is the result of an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations.

Updated October 27, 2020

complaint.pdf   [PDF, ]