11 July 2024

Bangkok’s National Museum is currently displaying two ancient stone lintels that were recently retrieved from the Asia Art Museum in San Francisco. Sculpted sometime in the 9th or 10th century, the two ancient slabs are beautiful, portraying Hindu gods, demons and elaborate plants and flowers carved out of heavy sandstone plates.

Even more amazing though is the fact that these two lintels spent some 50 years moving between art galleries, auction houses, art museums in an elaborate example of art smuggling before returning home.

The Prasat Nong Hong lintel, which is now displayed on the right side of the Front Palace, was looted from a Khmer monastery in Buriram province sometime in the early 1960s. The historical lintel was hacked off from the sandstone temple before being smuggled to London. Avery Brundage, an American tycoon and Asian art aficionado, bought the Prasat Nong Hong lintel from a London auction house in 1966.

A second architectural lintel of Khao Lon found itself in a similar situation. It was gouged out from a historical Khmer-style temple in Sa Kaeo province then shipped to a gallery in Paris. Again, Brundage bought it in 1968, and added it to his Asian art collection.

Not long after, Brundage donated the two lintels to the Asia Art Museum where they stayed.

This ancient hand-carved sandstone lintel depicts Indra sitting above Kala’s face. The lintel is from Prasat Khao Lon in Sri Kaeo province. (Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee)

Hacking off a 600-kilogram sandstone lintel from the stone temple is hard, and smuggling it out of the country of origin is even harder. But nothing can beat bringing it back to its place of origin.

Thai government tried in the 1960s to get back the two lintels from Brundage, but the American art aficionado denied their request. Avery died in 1975 and the first attempt to bring the lintels back to Thailand failed, possibly because the Thai government asked the wrong person.

The repatriation project became a “cold case” in the government archives for 50 years before Thai archaeologist Tanongsak Harnwong brought it back to public awareness.

“I found the Prasat Nong Hong lintel at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. It was a coincidence. We were investigating another stolen Thai antiquity,” Tanongsak Hanwong told Thai PBS World in a telephone interview. “I knew right away it was the long-lost Prasat Nong Hong lintel. The lintel is unique, featuring Yama, the Hindu lord of death, seated on a buffalo.”

Prasat Khao Lon lintel was discovered in the museum’s online records.

The Prasat Nong Hong sandstone lintel. (Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee)

In 2016, Tanongsak launched an online campaign to raise public awareness and capture the government’s attention. The following year, the Thai government decided to dust off the lintel repatriation project, and reached out to the U.S. government, this time making sure they were asking the right person. A formal Thai repatriation committee, with Tanongsak as a member, was later set up to work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“In the past, retrieving stolen antiquity was very difficult because we didn’t know who to deal with and how to prepare the evidence. In this case, we worked with Homeland Security and that allowed us to approach the right person,” Tanongsak explained. “In the US, Homeland Security keeps an eye on a museum’s unusual business. Some museums have been involved in tax fraud scams involving donations.”

After a three-year investigation by the US Department of Homeland Security, San Francisco, which owns the Asian Art Museum, agreed to hand over the ancient sandstone lintels.

The achievement has opened a new chapter in Thailand-US collaboration, and set a new standard for a repatriation campaign for the Thai committee.

Over the three years of investigation, information and documents were exchanged between the Homeland Security investigators and the Thai committee.  Old photographs of the lintels taken by a Thai archaeologist in 1959, legal documents, specific marks and dimensions of the antiquities were passed to the U.S. team to prove that the ancient stone lintels were moved out of Thailand illegally.

Thailand’s Culture Minister, Itthiphol Khunpluem examines the Prasat Khao Lon lintel on display at the Bangkok National Museum. (Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee)

For collectors of art and antiquities, provenance is crucial to an artifact’s legitimacy. The collector must demonstrate where the antiquity came from and how it passed from its original location to the collector.

In the case of Prasat Nong Hong and Prasat Khao Lon lintels, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco was unable to clear the provenance issue. The museum has every detail of how the lintels were transferred from Avery Brundage, but no documentation about their export from Thailand has been found.

“Working on this case with US Homeland Security will set a new standard for the Thai antiquity repatriation team,” Tanongsak said.

According to Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts, 300 stolen Thai antiquities need to be reclaimed from art galleries and museums around the world.

Long-lost lintels

The NationaPrasat Nong Hong lintel and Prasat Khao Lon lintel are on display at the Bangkok National Museum until September 30.

By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Phoowadon Duangmee