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May 26, 2021Los Angeles, CA, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

HSI returns stolen sacred artifacts to Thailand in commemoration ceremony

LOS ANGELES – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) returned two hand-carved sandstone lintels – structural components from 9th and 10th century religious sanctuaries in Northeastern Thailand – at an official commemoration ceremony held Tuesday at Crozier Fine Arts. The sacred lintels had been stolen and illegally exported from Thailand more than 50 years ago.

The return of the lintels to Thailand marks the culmination of a three-year probe by HSI Bangkok, HSI San Francisco, and subsequent prosecution by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Calif., that resulted in the City of San Francisco’s forfeiture of the sacred artifacts that had been on exhibit at the city’s Asian Art Museum.

“Today, with immense honor and respect, we are reuniting these cultural treasures with their rightful owners – the Kingdom and people of Thailand.” said Tatum King, Special Agent in Charge for HSI San Francisco. “The theft and trafficking of another country’s priceless and irreplaceable national treasures are a global concern that requires close collaboration between nations. With our global relationships, HSI is committed to investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property.”

In 2017, HSI received information from the government of Thailand concerning stolen lintels from two ancient Khmer era sanctuaries sometime during the late 1950s or early 1960s – that had been on exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum since its founding. Painstaking investigation revealed suspicious activities related to the acquisition of the ancient art and that the lintels were the property of the Kingdom of Thailand at the time they were removed from their ancient structures. Three years later, the U.S. government and the city of San Francisco entered into a settlement agreement in which the city conceded to the forfeiture of the artifacts, and, upon completion of the Asian Art Museum’s deaccessioning process, their repatriation home to Thailand.

“I want to thank the Thai Ambassador, the Thai Consuls General, and our friends in the Los Angeles Royal Thai Consulate General and in the Fine Arts Department in Thailand. They have all been gracious and provided invaluable assistance throughout our work to return these artifacts to Thailand,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds. “The Thai lintels are beautiful representations of Thai history and culture, and we are pleased to have assisted their return to their homeland.”

Despite increasingly aggressive enforcement efforts to prevent the theft of cultural heritage and other antiquities, the illicit movement of such items across international borders continues to challenge global law enforcement efforts to reduce the trafficking of such property. Trafficking in antiquities is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar transnational criminal enterprise.

“I wish the story of the Thai lintels will help raise awareness to prevent removal of historic, religious and cultural treasures from their original sites, in local communities,” said Manasvi Srisodapol, Ambassador of Thailand to the United States.

HSI, through its 80 offices in 53 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, and is committed to pursuing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime related to the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by targeting high-priority organizations and strengthening international law enforcement partnerships.

Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 15,000 objects to over 40 countries and institutions. In November 2014, HSI returned more than 500 artifacts to Thailand, including pottery, bronze ornaments, and tools. As recently as April 2021, HSI New York worked with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to return more than a dozen artifacts to the government of Thailand, including a bronze standing Buddha, circa 14th century CE.

Members of the public who have information about the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-347-2423 or to complete the online tip form.

HSI is a directorate of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and 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.