Thailand and U.S. collaborating to return Thai relics

Thailand’s Fine Arts Department announced last week that it has verified that 14 ancient relics on display in a Hawaii museum originated in Thailand and the government will work with the United States Department of Homeland Security to secure their safe return to the Kingdom.

The 14 pieces variously have been dated as being between 2,000 and 300 years old, and they originated from the central plains and northeastern regions of what is now Thailand. The region was once home to a number of ethnic groups and civilizations including the kingdoms of Dvaravati and Srivijaya. Evidence has been found that some of the ancient settlements had established trade with the Roman Empire.

Among the items at the museum are a bronze bell believed to be cast as long as 2,000 years ago and several Buddha images that clearly were made in the Lopburi, Suphanburi and Nakhon Ratchasima areas during the time of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.

The U.S. government has been supportive of Thai efforts to reclaim artifacts smuggled or illegally taken out of the Kingdom. In 2014, the U.S. government returned 554 ancient artifacts, mostly pottery, that had been looted from Ban Chiang, a Bronze Age settlement discovered by archaeologists in northeastern Thailand and that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The pieces were believed to have been smuggled out of Thailand in the 1970s and eventually ended up in a museum in California. The museum agreed to return the artifacts. The U.S. also charged several people for involvement with a ring smuggling antiquities from mainland Southeast Asia.

Minister of Culture Vira Rojpojchanarat said that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had asked the Thai government to verify that the items in the Hawaii museum had in fact come from Thailand. Of 17 artifacts examined and tested by a team from the ministry’s Fine Arts Department, 14 were certified as having originated in the Kingdom.

The ministry has now officially informed DHS of its results and is expecting smooth cooperation in repatriating the pieces. Authorities in the U.S. have been sending photographs of artifacts in various museums and other locations to Thai authorities on the suspicion they may have been smuggled out of the Kingdom.

The Thai government is also preparing to formally ask DHS authorities to help return other Thai artifacts believed to be in the U.S. They include two lintels, one missing from the Prasart Nong Hong In temple Buri Ram, and the other from the Prasart Khao Lon temple in Sa Kaeo, both northeastern provinces.