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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Center for Art Collection Ethics

Ellingen Stash Native American bowl

Center for Art Collection Ethics


Thailand claims works from U.S. museums

November 19, 2018 | Elizabeth Campbell, Director

As France, Germany and Britain grapple with repatriation demands from former colonies and other territories they once controlled, the United States is investigating claims from Thailand. In February 2018, after a year-long probe into missing objects, the Thai Minister of Culture, Vira Rojpojchanarat, called for the return of 23 artifacts from major U.S. museums. The claim widened on November 1, when the Thai government announced it would seek a total of 705 looted artifacts from museums in the United States and Australia. Thailand provided photographs and documents to bolster its claim that the disputed objects were looted from temples and archeological sites. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is now studying the documents.

The claimed works include two 11th-century stone lintels held by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and an 8th-century Buddha statue in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Other institutions impacted by the claim are the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, holding ten items under investigation, and the Honolulu Museum of Art, which holds fourteen disputed objects, including a bronze prehistoric bell and Buddha statues from the Dvaravati and Ayutthaya eras (6th to 11th and 14th to 18th century CE, respectively).

Artifacts from Thailand have been the source of other recent disputes with U.S. museums. In 2014, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California returned more than 500 ancient bowls, vases and other artifacts originating from Ban Chiang, an archeological site added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1992. The Bowers was among four California museums raided by federal agents in 2008, following investigations into Los Angeles-based dealer Jonathan Markell and his wife Cari. The couple donated looted objects to museums in a tax evasion scheme and helped fuel U.S. demand for looted antiquities from Thailand.

The Thai government has itself faced repatriation claims from Cambodia, and between 2009 and 2015 returned 23 artifacts seized from smugglers in a 1999 raid.

We are likely to see more and more of these repatriation claims, as antiquities-rich countries are increasingly emboldened to seek the return of their cultural heritage. Museums are expected to provide evidence of thorough provenance research on objects in their permanent collections, and perform due diligence when acquiring items through purchases or donations. In this realm of cultural property claims as in others, the transparent publication of research findings is a key indicator of rightful and ethical stewardship. These best practices allow some institutions to demonstrate a consistent culture of probity, while others now must make up for decades of laxity in acquisition practices.