Expert points to old trick to reclaim lintel from US
Thailand should employ the same tactic that enabled the country to successfully reclaim the famous reclining Vishnu lintel from the US in the 1980s in pressing for the return of an ancient artifact now on display at a San Francisco museum, fine arts expert Sahawat Naenna says.
Early this month, local residents in Buri Ram stepped up a call for the government to press for the return of the artifact, a pre-Angkorean lintel featuring Yama or the God of Death, from the Chong Moon Lee museum which gave the origin of the item as "from Nong Hong temple, in Non Din Daeng district, Buri Ram".
The museum did not reply to a request for comment by the Bangkok Post.
By law, Thailand is at a disadvantage and may not be able to fight for the return of artifacts possessed by foreign institutes as the country is not a signatory state of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
In the Vishnu lintel case, Thailand applied social pressure to demand the return of the artifacts from the US, which has ratified the convention.
In that case, the country used old photos of the artifact, taken by archeologist Manit Vallibhotama in 1960-1961, when it was at Phanom Rung sanctuary before it disappeared.
The photos, which were part of Manit's report of Khmer-style temples in the Northeast, acted as evidence that the lintel belonged to Thailand before it was smuggled.
By that time, Mr Sahawat, who is a former Fine Arts Department chief, said it was realised the Chicago Art Institute did not need to succumb to Thailand's demands given the country's lack of legal right in pursuing the case.
"But it eventually did," he said.
The Buri Ram-based people's sector, spearheaded by Tanongsak Harnwong, insisted the two cases are similar and the return of the second artifact should be possible. The photos of the Nong Hong lintel were from the same set taken by Manit for his report, said Mr Taongsak.
"The photos show this lintel was at the Nong Hong temple before it was stolen," said the businessman-turned-conservationist who filed a petition with the Fine Arts Department to take action and secure the return of the artifact to the country.
The fact the museum attributed the origin of the lintel to Buri Ram should give Thailand some advantage in the fight, he added.
Anandha Chuchoti, chief of the Fine Arts Department, said yesterday the picture of the Nong Hong lintel taken by the late Manit is valid evidence can be used to pursue the return of the artifact.
But it will be a long fight, he said, adding the Vishnu lintel case lasted more than a decade even though it involved archeological heavyweights like the late MC Subhadaradis Diskul.
The department is now studying the legal aspects of the case, and also the possibility of Thailand ratifying the 1970 convention, with the help of the Foreign Ministry, he said.