Lawsuit demands SF Asian Art Museum return stolen artifacts to Thailand

Artist rendering of San Francisco Asian Art Museum's renovation.

The U.S. government has filed a lawsuit demanding a San Francisco museum give up claims to two religious relics allegedly stolen from Thailand.

The U.S. attorney's office says a forfeiture complaint was filed Monday, demanding the Asian Art Museum forfeit claim to two 1,500-pound, decorative hand-carved lintels.

The government says they were looted and illegally taken to the U.S. The museum says it's been negotiating since 2017 to return the items to Thailand and the lawsuit could delay the already lengthy legal process.

According to the complaint, the lintels became a part of a collection held by a noted collector of South and Southeast Asian art, which was then bequeathed to the City and County of San Francisco before they went on display in the museum. 

The federal government learned of the artifacts' illegal export from Thailand in 2017. 

"U.S. law requires U.S. museums to respect the rights of other countries to their own historical artifacts,” United States Attorney David L. Anderson said. “For years we have tried to get the Asian Art Museum to return this stolen artwork to Thailand.  With this federal filing, we call on the Museum’s Board of Directors to do the right thing.”

The U.S. attorneys' office said during this investigation, they hope the relationship between the United States and Thailand remains one of mutual respect and admiration.

KTVU and Associated Press contributed to this story.