SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — The federal government has filed a civil lawsuit and was asking the Board of Directors of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum "to do the right thing" and return religious artwork illegally removed from ancient temples to the people of Thailand.
The artworks have been a point of contention since 2017.
"U.S. law requires U.S. museums to respect the rights of other countries to their own historical artifacts," U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in a news release. "For years we have tried to get the Asian Art Museum to return this stolen artwork to Thailand. With this federal filing, we call on the Museum's Board of Directors to do the right thing."
The civil complaint filed Monday in federal court seeks the forfeiture of two 1,500-pound hand-carved sandstone lintels the government contends were looted from ancient temples in Thailand.
The lawsuit says the items illegally made their way to a private collector in the United States and were donated to the San Francisco city- and county-owned collection of the Asian Art Museum.
Thailand began investigating after the Thai consulate general in Los Angeles saw the lintels on display when he visited the museum in 2016, according to the suit.
"Returning a nation's cultural antiquities promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world's cultural history and knowledge of past civilizations," said Tatum King, special agent in charge with Homeland Security Investigations in San Francisco. "The theft and trafficking of cultural artifacts is a tradition as old as the cultures they represent."
The museum said one lintel is from Nong Hong Temple and dates to 1000-1080 AD. The other is from Khao Lon Temple and dates to 975-1025 AD.
The museum says one item was bought by noted collector Avery Brundage, who headed the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, and the other by the museum, with Brundage as a go-between, in the 1960s from sellers in London and Paris.
The museum said that its own study found no evidence that the lintels were looted but also didn't turn up any copies of required export documents required under Thai law, so it took them off public display and 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.
"Through our work in this investigation, we hope to ensure the relationship between the United States and Thailand remains one of mutual respect and admiration," King said. "This will help Thailand's cultural heritage to be fully restored for the appreciation of this and future generations."
The lengthy process of permanently removing the items from the museum's collection had been expected to be completed this spring but now "the lintels won't go anywhere until the legal process is complete," Mintz said.
"We're surprised by this filing and we're disappointed that it seems to throw up a roadblock to what seemed like positive and developing negotiations." he added.
© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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