BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - For years, more than 500 artefacts including pottery, bronze tools, sandstone moulds and glass ornaments, have been offering a visual but illegal treat to visitors at the Bowers Museum in Santa Anna, California.
Now these items, almost all of them looted from Ban Chiang, an archaeological site in Thailand's Northeast, have been returned to their rightful home.
The 554 artefacts, some of which date back 5,000 years, were handed over to Thailand by the US government last Wednesday following almost a decade of investigation.
It is the most-significant return of ancient treasure since the Art Institute of Chicago returned the Narai Stone lintel 26 yeas ago.
All the artefacts have huge historical value.
"Cultural artefacts help form national identity. All of our countries are subject to these crimes. It's our priority to set that right. Today, nearly 700 artefacts have come back home, delivered into the hands of their rightful owners - the people of the Kingdom of Thailand," commented W Patrick Murphy, charge d'affaires of the US Embassy, during the hand-over ceremony at the National Museum Bangkok.
"All around the world, countries are open to these criminals, who steal and perpetuate this kind of cultural trade. Even in the United States we have been targetted by such crimes.
Over the past seven years, nearly 7,000 items have been returned to some 30 countries around the world, including this region. It's very good news that today Thailand has joined those countries, retaking the ownership of artefacts that should never have left the Kingdom."
Four pottery pieces, dozens of glass bracelets, earrings and some bronze tools were on display at the ceremony. All were stolen from Ban Chiang, Udon Thani, a World Heritage Site.
The pieces date back to as early as 1,500 BC.
Ban Chiang-style pottery is unique in appearance, with its characteristic brownish orange hue and circular, stylised pattern the most recognisable feature of the sophisticated civilisation of the earliest producers in Southeast Asia.
Culture Minister Vira Rojpochanarat explained that the returned artefacts are made up of 222 pieces of pottery, 197 bronze ornaments, 79 bronze instruments, 35 beads, 11 stone instruments and stone axes and 10 sandstone moulds
They were returned following the signing of a non-prosecution agreement with the US district attorney and are now being kept at the Kanjanapisek National Musuem in Pathum Thani.
"On behalf of the people of Thailand, I wish to express my heartfelt appreciation to the US government for their kind support in delivering the artefacts back to their rightful place. I would also like to extend our gratitude to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassy of the United States for their collaboration and affiliation which highly contributed to the success of the mission," Vira said.
Biravej Suwanpradhes, deputy director general of the Department of Information, added that the hand-over process began in mid-2009.
"The Royal Thai Consulate General in Los Angeles informed the Cultural Relations Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the US Government's request that Thailand's Fine Arts Department sent experts to inspect and screen the artefacts at Bowers Museum," Biravej recalled.
In response, Biravij led two senior curators and a senior scientist from the Fine Arts Department to the US in September 2009 to inspect the artefacts together with archaeologists and officials from the US Attorney's Office. Results indicated that the artefacts were the cultural property of Thailand.
"During the three days of investigation, experts from both countries worked hard to identify a very large number of artefacts," Biravej explained, adding that the some items had probably been smuggled from other countries in Southeast Asia.
Satisfied that the artefacts did indeed belong to Thailand, the museum finally shipped them home in eight containers. They departed the US on August 24 and arrived in Thailand on October 2.
"Each and very one of these artefacts symbolises the rich history of the Thai people. While our historians are mostly aware of their origins and architectural style, their discovery allows us to study the style, technique of production, material and age which will greatly benefit archaeological art research," Vira noted.
The Fine Arts Department, through its Office of the National Museum, has checked the condition of the artefacts and has found that most of pottery vessels are damaged and cracked. Bronze equipment and tools have not been preserved and stains of dirt and rust have been found on the objects.
Many of the tools have broken into separate parts and require repair by preservation scientists.
An initial inspection has indicated that most of the utensils, pottery, tools, tool moulds and ornaments made of earthenware, bronze, stone, glass and animal bones are from Ban Chiang but it is believed that some 25 to 30 per cent may have come from other prehistoric sites in the Northeast and the Central region.
"After conservation work, we will be taking some of them back to their place of origin," the culture minister concluded.