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Agents raid museums for smuggled artifacts

Federal agents executed search warrants Thursday at several Southern California museums to look for stolen antiquities, authorities said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal agents raided several Southern California museums on Thursday in search of Southeast Asian antiquities believed to have been illegally obtained, smuggled into the U.S. and donated so collectors could claim fraudulent tax deductions.

Agents also investigated American Indian artifacts at one museum.

Search warrants were executed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Authorities said no arrests had been made and no charges had been filed.

Court documents portray a five-year scheme in which the owner of a Los Angeles art gallery worked with a smuggler to bring in artifacts from Thailand and China, offered them as charitable contributions and then tried to claim the donations as tax write-offs by boosting their value. In some cases, museum officials initially questioned how the artifacts were obtained but eventually accepted them, according to affidavits filed in support of the search.

The investigation is the latest public relations debacle for museums in the United States that have been accused by foreign governments of housing treasures stolen from their countries. Italy has been negotiating with various museums, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, to have various statues, vases and other items from Roman and Greek times returned.

Michael Govan, director and chief executive officer of LACMA, estimated about 60 items donated to the museum over the past decade that have come under suspicion.

“They were seemingly quite regular objects to be gifted,” Govan said, adding the museum is cooperating with the investigation. “They came from sources who were members of the museum for many years and regular donors, so no, there was no reason for the museum to know ahead of time.”

Mingei director Rob Sidner said the museum was cooperating fully with the investigation.

“If the results of the investigation show that these objects were improperly donated and — we were assured they were acquired properly — they will be returned to their rightful owner,” Sidner said in a statement.

Representatives from the Pacific Asia museum did not immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment.

A statement from the Bowers Museum said items on display from El Malpais National Monument and Chaco Culture Historic Park in New Mexico were being examined by agents as to whether they were removed without a permit. Items from the Ban Chiang area in Thailand also were being reviewed.

All of the artifacts will remain at the museums, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman with the U.S. attorney’s office.

The warrants stem from an undercover investigation by a National Park Service special agent who posed as a collector interested in various artifacts. The agent targeted Robert Olson, who is alleged in an affidavit to be a smuggler, and Jonathan Markell, who co-owns an Asian art gallery in Los Angeles with his wife.

The agent said the artifacts passed through U.S. customs because they had “Made in Thailand” labels affixed to them, making it appear they were replicas. Olson, 79, allegedly boasted to the agent he had more item from the Ban Chiang area than Thailand itself, according to an affidavit.

Court documents said Olson, Markell and the agent met more than a dozen times and regularly e-mailed and called one another about the “sale, importation, and donation of stolen archaeological resources from China and Thailand and antiquities illegally imported from Burma.” Some of the calls and meetings were recorded, the warrants said.

In the case of the Pacific Asian Museum, Markell, 62, and the agent met with museum staffers in March 2006 to donate items recovered from the Ban Chiang culture in northeast Thailand. Two museum officials questioned the agent about how one of the artifacts was obtained. After Markell assured them that the Thai government wouldn’t miss the item because it wasn’t “an earth-shattering piece,” the museum accepted the donation, the documents said.

Investigators also searched Markell’s gallery and home. A phone and e-mail message left for Markell wasn’t immediately returned. A call to a phone listed as Olson’s went unanswered.

The warrants also detail a relatively simple scam in which Markell allegedly sold antiquities worth a few hundred dollars at a markup to the undercover agent and then used false appraisals to increase the value of the pieces to just less than $5,000 — the Internal Revenue Service’s floor for requiring written appraisals to support tax deductions on donated art.

At the Mingei in San Diego, museum officials accepted five Ban Chiang ceramic vessels, along with two other pieces, in June 2006. The undercover agent allegedly paid $1,500 to Markell, who declared a value of nearly $5,000 to the museum, according to the warrants.

Markell allegedly sent an e-mail to Sidner claiming that his Ban Chiang pieces had come from a now-deceased former curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and were all imported before Thai export restrictions went into effect.

Olson allegedly told the agent that he was being sent Ban Chiang antiquities as they were being dug up in northeast Thailand, in violation of Thai and international law.

It was unclear in court documents whether Mingei officials were aware of the provenance of the artifacts it accepted.

With the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Markell allegedly told the agent he lied to museum officials so they would accept his items. He allegedly also indicated museum officials had found a “loophole” to import restriction on some items but couldn’t elaborate.

According to the court documents, the agent who worked with Markell said he didn’t seem worried about being caught. The agent said that after providing Markell a news article about someone getting arrested for false tax returns dealing with antiquities, the dealer shrugged it off and laughed.

The documents quoted Markell as saying that “people who had been caught had to have done something stupid.”

Federal agents executed search warrants Thursday at several Southern California museums, looking for stolen antiquities, officials said.

Authorities were searching the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A search warrant was also issued for the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

A law enforcement source who had been briefed on the matter but spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation said authorities are looking for looted artifacts from Southeast Asia and whether appraisals of the items were inflated for improper tax deductions.

No arrests have been made, authorities said.

Officials videotaped certain exhibits and took notes on legal pads at the Bowers Museum while reporters waited outside. A phone message left with a museum spokeswoman was not immediately returned.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, reporters also gathered outside the front doors.

“We are cooperating fully with the investigation,” said LACMA spokeswoman Allison Agsten, who declined further comment.

A call to the Pacific Asia Museum was not immediately returned.