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June 29, 2021Washington, DC, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE returns ancient stone lintels to Thailand

WASHINGTON – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Justice, Thailand Ministry of Culture and Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs returned two Thai lintels to Thailand during a repatriation ceremony Friday at the National Museum of Bangkok.

“In today’s world, the theft and trafficking of another country’s priceless and irreplaceable national treasures is a global concern that requires cooperation and understanding between nations,” said Regional Attaché Eric McLoughlin for HSI Bangkok. “As a federal law enforcement agency with a global reach, HSI is a leader in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property. We are committed to eliminating criminals’ financial gain, and we are proud to have returned the lintels to their rightful home.”

In May 2017, the Ministry of Culture notified HSI Bangkok that two stolen sandstone lintels, from Khmer era sanctuaries, were exhibited at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. A lintel is an architectural support and artistic element of a structure which is placed over a doorway or window. The artifacts were stolen from northeastern Thailand sometime during the late 1950s or early 1960s. 

HSI Bangkok and HSI San Francisco worked closely with the Thai government to conduct a four-year investigation to prove that these items were removed from Thailand without permission, which made them forfeitable under federal law.  HSI San Francisco partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California and filed a complaint in October 2020 to forfeit these items.

In February 2021, the United States and the City of San Francisco entered into a settlement agreement in which city consented the forfeiture of the Thai lintels to the United States. HSI San Francisco turned these over to the Royal Thai Consulate General in Los Angeles in May 2021, and they were subsequently shipped back to the Kingdom of Thailand.

“These two lintels are visible symbols of Thai culture and history, and the U.S. government is proud to have fought for their return to Thailand,” said the U.S. Charge d’Affaires Michael Heath. “We celebrate the return of these lintels and know that, thanks to our close law enforcement cooperation and bilateral ties, they will now be seen by Thais young and old, as they admire the very rich traditions of their kingdom. The United States is a country of laws, and the laws are very clear regarding cultural relics that belong to other nations.”

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.

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.

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-DHS-2-ICE 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.