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 archeological 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 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, qz.com reported.
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 Archeology 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.