Saturday, March 12, 2005

Stolen Thai Crown?

thai crownjpg

An international art incident seems to be brewing this week complete with gold, royalty, theft, smuggling and muck-raking journalism. A gold crown on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of
  • "The Kingdom of Siam" exhibition, currently at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, appears to have been looted from a crypt in the historical city of Ayutthaya in 1957. It entered the Philadelphia Museum of Art's collection in 1982. After Jom Patch, from the Thai network ITV, reported last week that the crown might have been looted in the '50's from a sacred chamber at the Buddhist temple of Wat Ratchaburana at Ayutthaya, a furor erupted in Thailand.

    From Jesse Hamlin at the San Francisco Chronicle-
    "I am kind of brokenhearted,'' says Forrest McGill, the museum's chief curator, a Thai art scholar who wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan on the kingdom of Ayutthaya. "A group of American and Thai scholars has been working together on this for years, produced a major scholarly catalog and an exhibition of material that has hardly ever been seen before. And we can't get the focus on that because, for now at least, the focus seems to be on this one object.''

    Not to worry Forrest- the exhibition continues and the news stories on the crown will focus more attention on the exhibition than it would have received otherwise. The important thing is to use your knowledge of the Ayutthaya artifacts and the initial looting of the site to help trace the path of this one object from Thailand, to a mysterious art dealer named Klejman who acquired the piece in 1965, to Sotheby's from which the Philadelphia Museum acquired the work in 1982.

    Pattaratorn Chirapravati, a California professor and co-curator of the exhibition told ITV that the crown " was probably taken out of Thailand when Wat Ratchaburana was broken into." An interesting note: Pattaratorn is related to the Thai royal family - the great-great-granddaughter of King Chulalongkorn of Thailand.

    There is a precedent for the return of historical artifacts to Thailand- In 1988, the Art Institute of Chicago repatriated a 1,000-year-old stone carving of a Hindu god, which had vanished from northeastern Thailand in the 1960s and later was displayed at the museum. This theft triggered a surge of nationalist sentiment, including lyrics in a hit song by a Thai pop singer decrying the loss and the reluctance of the Art Institute to return the sculpture.

    I was encouraged that in a written statement provided to the press, Philadelphia Museum of Art director Anne d'Harnoncourt took responsibility, "We take the issue of provenance very seriously and would of course be ready to explore any questions about the history of the object with the appropriate Thai officials.''

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