US law enforcement agencies aren’t exactly famous for their love of culture. Yet the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) both work on investigating and repatriating stolen cultural property, art, and antiquities that were lost or looted from other countries.
In 2005, for example, ICE and Thai police announced that they had together recovered Thai and Khmer fossils and antiquities being shipped from Thailand to US buyers. In 2014, DHS returned 554 ancient artifacts taken from the World Heritage archaeological site Ban Chiang that had been displayed in a museum in Santa Ana, California. Since then, the Thai ministry of culture has stepped up recovery efforts, and on Nov. 6 Artnet News reported that Thailand is demanding the return of 23 antiquities housed in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other places.
Among the objects Thai authorities hope to repatriate are The Met’s sculpture of the four-armed Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, which the museum purchased in 1967, and carved stone lintels from temples in northern Thailand, which are now in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. American museums are not the sole targets of these efforts. Thailand’s culture minister Vira Rojpojchanarat is leading a task force to recover more than 700 artifacts in foreign collections, including in the UK and Australia.
The fact that museums may have stolen artifacts is not necessarily a reflection of criminality on the part of these institutions. They may pay for pieces that the museum didn’t know was acquired illegally or receive donations from collectors who might also be unaware of their dubious origins. Nonetheless,Joyce White, the executive director of the Institute for Southeast Asian Archaeology in Philadelphia, tells Artnet News that the Thai government’s current push does mean museums will have to be more vigilant about ascertaining the origins of their acquisitions.
Museums that can show their art was acquired legally will be able to keep those works, she believes, if they can prove the legality of their acquisitions in court. “Shining a light on this murky area of the museum world will hopefully be a trend in the 21st century,” White said.
Indeed, Thailand in August announced that it was seeking the return of 17 items on display in museum in Hawaii and that information about the works’ origins was forwarded to the US Department of Homeland Security, the Bangkok Post reported. That month, a private American collector turned over 12 ancient artifacts to Thailand believed to originate in a prehistoric 4,000-year-old civilization.
Thailand is not at all the only country insisting on the return of its works. In April, Ethiopian artifacts that were looted by British forces 150 years ago and were on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum were the subject of negotiations between the museum and Ethiopian officials. And in 2017, the British Museum hosted a summit with museums and cultural officials to negotiate the repatriation of ancient bronze sculptures stolen 120 years ago from Nigeria’s Benin kingdom. Michael Barrett of the Swedish Världskulturmuseet museum told The Guardian that the summit is part of an effort by a “generation of curators” looking to “find ways towards reconciliation.”
While returning art and artifacts can’t make up for a colonial past in the case of European museums, or for the theft of cultural heritage that ends up in institutions and collections more generally, the joint efforts among art experts, governments, and collectors are a heartening sign of the times. As the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington DC notes on its website, “The US government has been supportive of Thai efforts to reclaim artifacts smuggled or illegally taken out of the Kingdom.”