Sunday, 17 June 2018

Controversy over Thai Buddha in London's SOAS

There is a 13th-century broken off Buddha torso of Thai origin standing in front of the Brunei Gallery in London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).  On its website, the SOAS describes the statue as “a delightful 13th-century Lopburi Buddha torso of Thai origin”. The manner in which it got there is under discussion (Phatarawadee Phataranawik, Thai Buddha statue not smuggled: SOAS', The Nation June 16, 2018)
The SOAS has denied claims the prestigious institution possesses a 13th-century sculpture likely smuggled from Thailand “We strongly reject any suggestion that SOAS University of London has handled this donation improperly. The allegations made in the blog post by this student are without foundation,” SOAS spokesperson Vesna Siljanovska told The Nation by email. Siljanovska was referring to allegations made by SOAS scholar Angela Chiu, who had accused her school of accepting the one-metre-tall Buddha statue that stands at the entrance to its Brunei Gallery. It was gifted to the SOAS by American alumni Mary and Paul Slawson who reportedly bought it minus documents attesting to its provenance some 30 years ago.
Paul Slawson
(thus around 1988, Paul Slawson here, on the list of benefactors here). SOAS has denied any wrongdoing in accepting the sculpture. In doing so they bring out the art trade's hoary old ALR excuse:
Siljanovska added due diligence was carried out by SOAS in accordance with SOAS’s Collections Management Policy and Due Diligence Procedure for the acceptance of Philanthropic Gifts [...] Siljanovska said: “[...] before accepting the gift, checks were carried out by our experienced Galleries and Exhibitions Manager and included placing the details of the object on the Art Loss Register” [...] John Hollingworth, head of Galleries and Exhibitions at the SOAS [says]. “[...] his team had checked with the International Council of Museums and found that the artefact is not on the ICOM [International Council of Museums] Red Lists of lost or vulnerable artworks.”
That rather misinterprets the nature and function of ICOMOS Red Lists (as I am sure the academics at SOAS know - or jolly well should know). Their student does:
However, Chiu commented that checking the ICOM Red List was not sufficient to identify provenance. There are no Thai objects on the Red List. “ICOM does not say that checking its Red List is a substitute for documented provenance.”
But in any case, there is no ICOMOS Red List for Thailand (!).

See also:  SOAS Watch 'SOAS Accepts Gift of Potentially-Looted Southeast Asian Sculpture, Begins Offering Antiquities Laundering Service' 08/06/2018
On 12 March, Mr. Slawson sent Mr. Hollingworth a letter which states that the sculpture was purchased in 1985 at the “Ormond Gallery on Portobello Road,” the staff of which was “not aware of the exact origin” of the sculpture. (p. 1) [...] On 12 March, one working day after his meeting with the Slawsons, Mr. Hollingworth informed SOAS Development staff about the donation so that they could begin the process of due diligence and documentation. (p. 23) Thirteen minutes later, Mr. Hollingworth emailed the Slawsons that he was in touch with art moving companies about the transport of the sculpture; by the end of the day, he had scheduled it for 3 days’ hence. (pp. 8, 9, 36) Thus, even as the due diligence process had hardly begun, Mr. Hollingworth was already proceeding to take possession of the sculpture.
UPDATE 17th June 2018
More startling details here: SOAS Watch 'SOAS Administration’s Misunderstanding of Museum Standards ' 16/06/2018
Thailand is a notoriously looted country. This heightens concerns about the antiquity in question having no documented provenance. Also, stone Buddhist sculpture of the Lopburi era (13thcentury) of this size is rare. This is an artefact that should have been treated with great cautiousness and sensitivity.

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