The Culture and Foreign ministries are investigating a claim that London University’s prominent School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is in possession of a 13th-century sculpture possibly smuggled from Thailand, The Nation reported this morning.
The paper said the ministries were prompted into action last Wednesday by Angela Chiu, a scholar at the SOAS, after she posted details of her three-month investigation into the sculpture on her webpage and social media.
According to The Nation, 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 was quoted by The Nation as saying 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, according to the paper.