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February 10, 2021San Francisco, CA, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

HSI investigation leads to the return of 2 Thai religious relics reported stolen by Thailand and displayed at San Francisco Asian Art Museum

Local government agrees to forfeit and return 2 ancient Thai lintels illegally taken decades ago

SAN FRANCSICO — A three-year investigation by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) led to a settlement in a United States lawsuit, February 10, in which the City and County of San Francisco consented to the forfeiture of two Thai lintels housed and on display at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum.

The Thai lintels are two 1,500-pound hand-carved decorative relics which, according to court documents, 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 subsequently donated to San Francisco and displayed at its Asian Art Museum.

“The successful outcome of this investigation helps restore Thailand’s cultural heritage for the appreciation and study of this and future generations,” said Tatum King, Special Agent in Charge for HSI San Francisco. “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. With our partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for 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.”

In 2017, HSI special agents learned about the illegal exportation from Thailand of these relics, which renders them forfeitable under federal law. The United States and the City and County of San Francisco entered into a settlement agreement, in which San Francisco consents to the forfeiture of the Thai lintels to the United States and, upon the completion of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s deaccessioning process, their safe repatriation home to Thailand.

Federal importation law provides HSI 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 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 people of Thailand to appreciate their religious and cultural significance.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 Special Agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.