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Ancient artefacts smuggled to the US in the 1960s will be sent back to Thailand

Caitlin Ashworth



Ancient artefacts that were smuggled out of Thailand decades ago and ended up on display at a museum in the United States will be shipped back to Thailand. The 2 hand carved lintels, each weighing more than 680 kilograms, were stolen from temples in Buri Ram and Sa Kaeo, according to a complaint filed with the Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California San Francisco Division.

An investigation was launched by the US Department of Homeland Security back in 2016 after the Consul General of the Royal Thai Consulate in Los Angeles visited San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and saw the ancient Thai lintels on display. The investigation has now come to a close and the US government will ship the lintels back to Thailand, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat. The ancient lintels have also been removed from the museum’s list.

The lintels are believed to have been stolen and the sold to European merchants in the late 1960s, according to the Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. One was given to the museum in 1966 and the museum bought the other lintel in 1968.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post


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  1. Avatar

    Toby Andrews

    Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 5:19 pm

    How do the Thais know they were stolen? The abbot at the Wat might have sold them. If so this was a legitimate sale.
    I had hoped the Thais are paying for their shipment back, but seems the mug westerners are.

    • Avatar


      Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 6:34 pm

      The theiving dogs should pay restitution too.

    • Avatar

      James Pate

      Monday, February 15, 2021 at 7:06 am

      No abbot would have had the legal right to sell them. They were state property. It’s been proven they were stolen. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be coming back.

      • Avatar

        dee lee

        Monday, February 15, 2021 at 9:13 am

        like the Elgin horses

        • Avatar

          James Pate

          Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 5:50 am

          There’s a good argument that Lord Elgin rescued the marbles from destruction during the war between Greece and Turkey and subsequent wars. At that time, the Acropolis was used to store ammunition! However, it also raises an interesting question: What if they had been destroyed when Germany bombed London in WWII?
          A poll was taken in England several years ago. Roughly 1/3 of respondents support repatriation, 1/3 oppose and 1/3 don’t care. George Clooney has lent his celebrity clout for repatriation.

  2. Avatar


    Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 5:50 pm

    It is only a legitimate sale, if selling this kind of item is authorised, and especially exporting it (it is the main issue here).
    There are numerous stories of people buying things in a market, a tourist shop, etc, and stopped the the border with unfriendly consequences…
    Ex. just 6 days ago, a location scout, detained 50 days in a high security prison in Turkey, for trying to export a seemingly insignificant 50 euro item bought innocently in an open market …
    (source : “Le Monde” (in French, sorry) : )

    • Avatar

      James Pate

      Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 6:14 am

      Interesting story. Thanks for posting this. I think we can all agree that innocently buying a curio in a 2nd hand shop is different than stealing several hundred kilos of stone from an archeological site.

  3. Avatar


    Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 7:02 pm

    I don’t see the problem. If it’s in a museum at least people learn about your so-called culture.

    It’s only worth something because it is in the US. When it goes back to Thailand it will be one of many Thai artifacts from some random wat burian.

    • Avatar

      James Pate

      Monday, February 15, 2021 at 7:01 am

      Yes, there’s a good argument that some artifacts should just stay where they are, regardless of how they got there as they are the patrimony of all of mankind and that there are already plenty examples of similar items in the country of origin.

  4. Avatar


    Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 7:04 pm

    Hope the consul general feels important now. Fighting the good fight. One at a time.
    1 like one prayer. How many are needed for a promotion?

  5. Avatar


    Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 9:35 pm

    I’ve been to Prasat Nong Hong in Buriram, they are beautiful ruins. I’m assuming the returned artifact will more likely end up in a Thai museum than returned to the ruins itself. If Thailand wants them back they should get them. That said they were probably doing more to promote Thai culture in SF than where ever they end up. Still happy to see them go home.

    • Avatar

      James Pate

      Monday, February 15, 2021 at 7:13 am

      Not sure about these lentels in particular but, one story from Buriram years ago mentioned a helicopter used to steal a heavy lentil, according to witnesses.

      • Avatar

        James Pate

        Monday, February 15, 2021 at 7:56 am

        Sorry I misspelled “lentel”. It was a big stone over a doorway, not a small bean!

      • Avatar


        Monday, February 15, 2021 at 9:11 am

        That might have been the one taken from the Phanom Rung ruins. They are relatively close to each other, and you can easily visit both in a nice day trip if you happen to be in Buriram. The Phanom Rung ruins are much nicer and more well preserved. Both had their lintels stolen in the early 60s and the Phanom Rung one was returned back in 1988. It’s now back where it belongs at the site.

        • Avatar

          James Pate

          Monday, February 15, 2021 at 9:20 am

          Yes, you remember the tale better than me. I’ve been to both sites before and hope to see them again someday.

  6. Avatar

    Malc Thai

    Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 9:35 pm

    How were they smuggled at 680 kilos each .. not under someones jacket i presume

  7. Avatar

    Wayne C

    Sunday, February 14, 2021 at 10:33 pm

    If they were taken illegally Taken they should be returned to the exact location which they were removed from .
    As long as they can be protected.
    If they cannot be protected then they should be placed in a Thai museum .

    • Avatar

      James Pate

      Monday, February 15, 2021 at 7:17 am

      I think replicas have been put in place of the originals and the returned originals will probably be displayed in nearby museums.

  8. Avatar


    Monday, February 15, 2021 at 1:06 am

    I think most of these “artefacts” are actually thai wives

  9. Avatar

    James Pate

    Monday, February 15, 2021 at 7:53 am

    The repatriation of illegally exported artifacts is a hot topic in the museum world. Zawi Hawass, Egypt’s Director of Antiquities (and not my favorite person), has a long list of stuff he wants back, including the Rosetta Stone in London, the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin and the obelisk Napoleon brought back as a souvenir. Good luck with that, Zawi! Greece wants the Elgin Marbles back. Japan has sent many artifacts back to Korea. Mexico has more or less conceded that the famed Aztec peacock headdress is too fragile to move and should stay in Portugal, even though they recently lodged a formal request for return. Authorities are still sorting through hundreds (thousands?) of pieces looted by Nazi Germany. There is no “one size fits all” solution and we must consider each object (or group of objects) separately. However, I think we can all agree that artifacts should not be returned to countries which can’t clearly protect them. Heartbreaking to see the Taliban blow up the massive Buddhist sculptures and ISIS destroy Sumarian works. Encouraging to see Turkey preserving the Byzantine mosaics in The Grand Mosque in Istanbul and the British Museum finally displaying the Benin Bronzes in a more sensitive manner. A fascinating topic, indeed.

  10. Avatar

    dee lee

    Monday, February 15, 2021 at 9:09 am

    England should be next to return pilfered items from …(.insert here name of country )

    • Avatar


      Monday, February 15, 2021 at 11:26 pm

      Reminds me of my first trip to the British Museum. Absolutely loved the place. Was overwhelmed by shear volume of looted artifacts from every corner of the world. Of course the Brits only took the best stuff. It’s like they had someone at the loading dock saying “no this item is not good enough, leave it for the French or Americans”.

      • Avatar

        James Pate

        Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 6:17 am

        Although not on the same scale, I had a similar feeling visiting the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.

  11. Avatar

    Caucashit Ciller

    Monday, February 15, 2021 at 2:58 pm

    Compartmentalized white people under the guise of different nationalities stealing

    • Avatar

      James Pate

      Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 6:24 am

      White folks don’t have a monopoly on this. Japan has returned hundreds of items to Korea, looted during the Japanese occupation. Closer to home, a review of the origins of the Emerald Buddha may be in order. Do you think for a second that Thailand would ever return it to Laos?

  12. Avatar

    Toby Andrews

    Monday, February 15, 2021 at 5:15 pm

    Anyone run a metal detector over them. These being Thai, they might be concrete with reinforcing bars inside.
    The lovable scamps!


  13. Avatar


    Monday, February 15, 2021 at 11:10 pm

    Many items are bought legally with an exporting permit from the government.
    Auction houses are full of genuine artifacts sold with proof of authenticity.
    So if these artifacts are claimed by the governments of their origin countries then the last owner is the only one spoiled by the eventual return of the artifact.
    Even museums sell some pieces of their collection in order to buy better ones or they make donation to smaller provincial museums.
    Tracing and returning artifacts to their original countries would be a nightmare.
    Now there are laws against exportation of endangered species or animal parts (ivory tusks, tiger and bear parts, etc…), smuggling is always very active and as everyone knows Thailand is a major hub in the smuggling network.
    During my several trips to Myanmar I have been offered to buy many ancient artifacts, either in Mandalay or Bagan with official permits to export and they even propose to do the shipment to your foreign address. With the level of corruption endemic to so many countries, better to stay away from these “deals” (unless you don’t mind having a free pair of SS bracelets as you are escorted out of the airport after the merchant disclosed the deal to his custom agent buddy and claimed a part of the heavy fine you’ll had to pay to regain your freedom, on top of the new expenses caused by the trip interruption).

  14. Avatar

    James Pate

    Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 6:37 am

    Yes, Baroness. The problem is even more complicated when the court is faced with multiple, competing individual heirs claiming ownership. (See the Hans Gurlitt case.) Those individuals don’t have the influence of a sovereign nation as a plaintiff. Yes, the smuggling of rare animal parts breaks my heart. I was once offered a job to authenticate some very old ceramics in Myanmar. I passed. I didn’t want to get involved with grave robbers!

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Caitlin Ashworth is a writer from the United States who has lived in Thailand since 2018. She graduated from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media studies in 2016. She was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette In Massachusetts. She also interned at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia and Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida.

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