Have a look at these 1,000-year-old sculptures, because they’re unlikely to be on display at the Asian Art Museum any longer amidst a troubling lawsuit from the US government.
There is still some degree of a “looted art” problem in American museums. Much of this is decades-old theft by Nazi Germany that experts are continuing to litigate and unpack. Just a year ago this week, another Nazi-plundered painting — this one by an American artist, Gari Melchers — was discovered to be on display at a museum in New York. Now San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has a similar problem, though it does not involve Nazis. As the Chronicle reports, the museum has been sued by the federal government for allegedly harboring two stolen works of art from Thailand.
The US government has filed a lawsuit demanding the San Francisco Asian Art Museum return two ancient artifacts to Thailand: https://t.co/JQ9MXH0ku5 pic.twitter.com/QHZJQzn1t0— Artnet (@artnet) October 29, 2020
The lawsuit itself is called United States of America vs. Two One-Thousand-Five-Hundred Pound, Hand-Carved Lintels Removed From Religious Temples In Thailand, and was filed Monday in a US District Court. “Lintels” are decorative horizontal blocks placed above doors, and they are often quite ornate in Southeast Asian architecture. The suit claims that these two “were originally located in Buriram and Sa Kaeo,” two provinces of Thailand, prior to being exported illegally.
One of the pieces was donated by a collector in 1966, the other was purchased by the museum in 1968. Per the lawsuit, the Thai consulate insists these disappeared from Thailand in 1959 and 1967, and that a collector whom the Chronicle identifies as Avery Brundage “obtained LINTEL 1 in 1966 from an auction house and gallery located in London, UK” and “obtained LINTEL 2 from a gallery located in Paris, France” in 1968.
The museum, which is governed by the city and county of San Francisco, and therefore legally represented by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, claims they’ve been in the process of returning (they call it “deaccessioning”) these works. When the case was heating up earlier this month, Herrera wrote to a U.S. attorney in a letter obtained by the Chronicle that “From our discussions with you and [Assistant U.S. Attorney] Amanda Bettinelli over the past year, we had understood that we were moving toward resolving the Thai Government’s request without litigation, so we were surprised when you mentioned to us in July that there would need to be a complaint and stipulation for civil forfeiture.”
But in the same letter, he gave the museum some wiggle room, saying the government “presented us with no evidence that these lintels were stolen.” He added that while the lintels have been removed from display, “There must be a second vote of the commission on this matter in six months’ time” before a full return. The feds presumably see this as foot-dragging, and felt compelled to file the lawsuit.
These disputes do happen in the museum world. The New York Met agreed to return several works to Italy in a similar 2006 case, and a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum is Los Angeles was indicted by the Italians in 2005, but the charges were dropped and most pieces returned.
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Top Image: Bjjung via Wikimedia Commons