U.S. returns stolen ancient artifacts to Thailand

November 23, 2014 at 4:28 PM EDT
This week, the U.S. returned hundreds of ancient artifacts to Thailand. The collection of items including bronze objects, pottery and stone tools were taken from a UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site decades ago, and had made their way to a museum in California.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This week, the United States returned hundreds of ancient artifacts to Thailand that officials say were looted decades ago from a 5,000 year old UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site.

The collection of bronze items, pottery, stone tools, beads, and sandstone molds was returned Wednesday, during a ceremony at Thailand’s National Museum in Bangkok.

The artifacts were found in 2008, during a raid on the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, after a five-year undercover federal investigation. The museum agreed to return the items in exchange for amnesty for its staff.

But when US Chargé d’Affaires, W. Patrick Murphy, handed over the artifacts to Thailand, he assured reporters that the people allegedly involved antiquity smuggling will face criminal charges.

W. PATRICK MURPHY: The theft, the fraudulent trade of cultural artefacts, therefore, erodes national identity. All of our countries are subject to this international crime and it is our priority to end this kind of crime.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is not the first time a reputable museum has returned stolen objects from its collection.

Just last year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two large statues to Cambodia, after Cambodian officials provided evidence that the artifacts were looted from an ancient temple in that country. And in 2007 The J. Paul Getty museum near Malibu, California, returned 40 artifacts to Italy, including a large statue thought to be a likeness of the goddess Aphrodite that the museum purchased for $18 million in 1988.

Identifying museum objects that were stolen, and then returning them to their countries of origin remains a difficult process in a market in which the Archeological institute of America estimates 85-90% of artifacts do not have documented provenance.