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Feds Settles Suit With San Francisco Over Return of Religious Artifacts To Thailand

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The City of San Francisco intends to return two religious artifacts to Thailand after the city settled a lawsuit with the federal government, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"I want to thank San Francisco and the Asian Art Museum for their agreement to forfeit these treasures so they may be returned to Thailand," said U.S. Attorney Anderson. "The United States is committed to returning stolen relics to nations seeking to preserve their heritage. We will use all our power, including civil forfeiture, to ensure that misappropriated cultural items are returned to their rightful owners."

The federal government sued San Francisco back in October of last year over the artifacts, which Thailand officials said were stolen. The city obtained the two lintels, which are two 1,500-pound hand-carved decorative relics, over 50 years ago and they've been in San Francisco's Asian Art Museum since the museum's opening in 1966. One lintel is from Nong Hong Temple and dates to 1000-1080 AD and the other is from Khao Lon Temple and dates to 975-1025 AD.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the relics 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." The lintels were donated to the museum by an art collector referred to in the government's complaint as "COLLECTOR 1," identified by the museum as Avery Brundage, the former head of the International Olympic Committee. Brundage was a wealthy collector of East Asian art and the "founding donor" of the museum, to which he donated more than 7,000 pieces from his collection. In recent years the museum has distanced itself from Brundage -- in 2020 the museum removed a bust of Brundage that was prominently displayed at the museum for years. At the time the museum said took down the bust due to his record of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic beliefs.

The government didn't learn of the illegal exportation until 2017, after the Thai Consulate visited the Asian Art Museum the year before. The museum said that it found no evidence that the artifacts were stolen but also didn't turn up any copies of required export documents required under Thai law. At the time, the museum took them off public display but was planning to return them.

The lawsuit is surprising because the museum had been negotiating with both the Department of Homeland Security and Thai officials since 2017, said Robert Mintz, the museum's deputy director.

"The successful outcome of this investigation helps restore Thailand's cultural heritage for the appreciation and study of this and future generations," said Homeland Security Investigations (NorCal) Special Agent in-Charge Tatum King. "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.

Per the terms of the settlement, the Thai lintels will return to Thailand through the U.S. Department of Justice's victim remission program. After that, the lintels will be exhibited for the religious and cultural appreciation of the people of Thailand.

© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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