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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Northern District of California

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, February 10, 2021

United States Successfully Negotiates The Return Of Two Thai Religious Relics Reported Stolen By Thailand And Displayed At San Francisco Asian Art Museum

In United States’ Lawsuit, San Francisco Agrees To Forfeit And Return to Thailand Two Ancient Thai Lintels Illegally Taken From Thailand Decades Ago

SAN FRANCISCO – The United States obtained a settlement in its lawsuit today in which the City and County of San Francisco consented to the forfeiture of its two Thai lintels to the United States, announced United States Attorney David L. Anderson of the Northern District of California and Homeland Security Investigations (NorCal) Special Agent in Charge Tatum King.

On October 27, 2020, the United States filed a complaint to forfeit the two Thai lintels which are housed in and have been displayed at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum.  The Thai lintels are two 1,500-pound hand-carved decorative relics which, according to the complaint, were originally part of ancient religious temples in Thailand and are prime examples of the decorative lintel and material art traditions of Southeast Asian art.  These religiously-significant lintels are alleged to have been exported from Thailand in violation of Thai law over 50 years ago and thereafter were donated to San Francisco and displayed at its Asian Art Museum. 

In 2017, the United States learned about the illegal exportation from Thailand of these relics, which renders them forfeitable under federal law, as the complaint alleges.  The United States and the City and County of San Francisco entered into a settlement agreement, today signed by U.S. District Court Magistrate Donna M. Ryu, in which San Francisco consents to the forfeiture to the United States of the Thai lintels and, upon the completion of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s deaccessioning process, their repatriation to Thailand.  The United States will thereafter coordinate with Thai authorities to ensure the safe return of the lintels to Thailand.

“I want to thank San Francisco and the Asian Art Museum for their agreement to forfeit these treasures so they may be returned to Thailand,” said U.S. Attorney Anderson.  “The United States is committed to returning stolen relics to nations seeking to preserve their heritage.  We will use all our power, including civil forfeiture, to ensure that misappropriated cultural items are returned to their rightful owners.”  

Federal importation law provides Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which led this investigation, with the authority to lead investigations into crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property and art. Customs law allows HSI to seize cultural property and art in the United States illegally, such as when it is reported lost or stolen.

“The successful outcome of this investigation helps restore Thailand’s cultural heritage for the appreciation and study of this and future generations,” said Homeland Security Investigations (NorCal) Special Agent in-Charge Tatum King. “The theft and trafficking of cultural artifacts is a tradition as old as the cultures they represent. Returning a nation’s precious cultural antiquities promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world’s cultural history and knowledge of past civilizations. Through our work in this investigation in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California, we have diligently sought to ensure the relationship between the United States and Thailand remains one of mutual respect and admiration.”

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.          

Chris Kaltsas is the Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of California prosecuting this forfeiture with Amanda M. Bettinelli of the Central District of California, and with the assistance of Irene Zhu.  The forfeiture action is the result of a three-year investigation by Homeland Security Investigations.

Updated February 10, 2021