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London university accused of accepting smuggled sculpture

Jun 13. 2018
A 13th century Buddha torso of Thai origin stands inside the Brunei Gallery building of the School of Oriental and African Studies on March 22.  Photo courtesy of Angela Chiu
A 13th century Buddha torso of Thai origin stands inside the Brunei Gallery building of the School of Oriental and African Studies on March 22. Photo courtesy of Angela Chiu
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By Phatarawadee Phatatanawik
The Nation

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The Culture and Foreign ministries are following up an accusation made by London University’s prominent School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), that it accepted as a gift a 13th-century sculpture possibly smuggled from Thailand.

The news broke last Wednesday when Angela Chiu, a scholar at the SOAS, posted details of her three-month investigation into the gift on her webpage and social media. 

Chiu spotted the one-metre-high torso in March standing in front of the collage’s Brunei Gallery. It was gifted to the SOAS by American alumni Mary and Paul Slawson who reportedly bought it minus any documents attesting to its provenance some 30 years ago. On its website, the SOAS describes the statue as “a delightful 13th-century Lopburi Buddha torso of Thai origin”.

“I was on the SOAS campus and noticed the sculpture sitting in the lobby of one of the buildings. An ancient Thai sculpture is a very unusual sight at the SOAS. The SOAS has a gallery for temporary exhibitions, but no permanent exhibition, no curator, and no conservator,” Chiu told The Nation via Facebook.

Chiu holds a Master’s and doctorate in Thai Art History from the SOAS. She penned the book “The Buddha in Lanna: Art, Lineage, Power, and Place in Northern Thailand”. The independent art historian is currently studying Sanskrit at the campus.

Chiu launched her investigation after becoming suspicious that the sculpture might have been stolen from Thailand. 

“The owner of the sculpture acquired it 30 years ago, before the British law on provenance, so I sent questions to the SOAS. The SOAS is a public institution and is therefore obligated to respond to public requests under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act,” she explained.

She added that the SOAS received zero documentation of the ownership history or provenance of the sculpture. It was therefore highly possible that the school had accepted a potentially looted or illegally trafficked piece of Thai cultural property. The donors are US citizens, whom the SOAS helped to receive a US tax deduction on the gift valued at about 60,000 euros (Bt2.26 million). The school has denied the allegation.

“To be honest, the SOAS’s treatment of the Thai statue as a financial asset or goods [rather than Thai cultural property] seems colonialist,” she commented. Chiu, who also published the accusation on her website, said she’s concerned the figure might have been looted, a fate that has befallen many historical artefacts from Southeast Asia.

In the century since the colonial era, Western museums – both public and private – have continued to collect looted cultural heritage. Early this year, the Culture Ministry began expediting the process to retrieve more than 100 ancient Thai artefacts from leading US museums.

“I believe the SOAS should respect Thailand’s rights to its cultural property, rights which are protected by UK, Thai and US laws as well as national and international codes of ethics surrounding cultural property. If the SOAS accepts a potentially looted and/or trafficked Thai object of cultural property, this incites more stealing and illegal excavation in Thailand. Those crimes end up taking away data that enable the Thai people to understand their history and culture. The SOAS is a leading international centre for the study of Asia. It should be a model for ethical, professional and sensitive treatment of Asian cultural property,” she explained.

The Nation emailed Peter D Sharrack of the SOAS but has yet to receive a reply.

Bringing back the looted treasures to Thailand is the task of the Culture and Foreign ministries. 

Chiu recently voiced her suspicions to the Royal Thai Embassy in London whose officials said on Tuesday that “they have sent a message about this matter to the Foreign Ministry, which will liase with the relevant agencies”. It is understood that the Culture Ministry has yet to be officially contacted.

The Nation reported Chiu’s suspicions to the Fine Arts Department (FAD), submitting photographs and the link to Chui’s webpage

“The Culture Ministry’s Fine Art Department has not received information about this issue,” the FAD’s Anan Chuchote told The Nation, adding that he would ask Chiu to send her documents to the department. 

“If we get information, we’ll look into whether the artefact is of Thai origin or not. If we feel there is a case to be made, we will ask the Thai authority’s ad hoc committee responsible for bringing back looted art from abroad to follow up on this issue,” Anan explained. 

In fact, as part of her investigation, Chiu had already consulted Thai archaeologist Tanongsak Hanwong, a member of the ad hoc committee.

“This Thai treasure is very important as the 700-year-old artefact is among the rarest of Lopburi Buddha statues,” he said.

“I see a positive outcome for this case, as Chiu’s investigation has considerably cut the time required by Thai authorities for information gathering. The Thai authorities can now move to negotiating with the SOAS,” Tanongsak said.


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