Four prominent Southern California museums and two male suspects got caught in an extensive FBI web that brought a 500-agent federal raid down upon them Thursday. The raids came after an ongoing investigation came to fruition regarding looted and smuggled art, allegedly taken from Thailand, China, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma) and Native American digs within the United States. The case also alleges charges of tax fraud against its perps.Federal agents moved in on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), The Charles S. Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Mingei International Museum in San Diego and Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, after a five-year long sting operation begun by unidentified National Park Service agent who used the oniker Tom Hoyt, to go undercover back in early 2003.According to the warrants, agents were primarily looking at items and records tied to suspects in a long-term investigation tied to the two men. One man is Robert Olson, 79, owner of a Los Angeles Asian art gallery specializing in Native American and Thai antiques. Olson has claimed to have the largest collection of Native American ladles worldwide. The art dealer sold artifacts museums, dealers, collectors, and even peddled his wares on eBay.
Accordingly, federal agents sent a loud and clear message, saying they are watching their every move and they should clean house today.
The undercover agent posed as Hoyt, a tech executive and avid art collector, described as a thin man with a mustache who wanted to expand his personal collection. Over time, the agent gained the trust of his suspects and learned about their illicit practices after about 24interactions. Authorities identified the two men following a tip from an unknown smuggler who pointed the finger at Olson, leading to a 2003 import seizure originating from Thailand.
According to the warrants, Olson fostered Hoyt through the art world, making introductions to museum curators and collectors, who would enable Hoyt to make highly-inflated multiple tax-deductible donations to their non-profit entities.
The FBI exposed the art aficionados after a thorough investigation, leaving the unsuspecting loot buyers and curators to be stunned after FBI and IRS agents swooped down on them with the warrants.
The FBI now has the authority to scour the museums and other related business establishments top to bottom, after serving the far-reaching warrants, justified by the agent’s lengthy footwork. No stone will be left unturned in the FBI’s effort to catch the dirty art dealers and buyers involved in the embarrassing scandal.
The other suspect is Jonathan Markell, co-owner of the Silk Roads Gallery on La Brea Avenue. He runs the gallery with his wife Cari and specializes in Asian and Buddhist art. The store sells artifacts from China, Burma and Thailand and its website shows the owners in a friendly photo with the Dalai Lama.
The two suspects have not been charged at this time, but the warrants are a telling indication for the allegedly shady dealers. They should be especially worrisome because the warrants are written so specifically. Generally, this indicates that prosecutors are finalizing their case for indictment and trial.
Tax fraud allegations were made as well, which may prove worse a crime than theft. According to the investigation, Olson revealed all sorts of interesting information to Hoyt, apparently telling the agent he’s been colluding with looters since the1980s.
According to documents from the investigation, Olson divulged his prowess in buying and selling stolen Thai antiquities and he allegedly admitted to smuggling some of the stuff personally. He’s alleged to having knowingly imported illegally garnered art objects, which were taken from the Ban Chiang.
Items were allegedly taken straight from the dig sites illegally and without obtaining a permit from the Thai government. Thai officials have been making these theft allegations for years to the United States government after banning the export of unapproved antiquities in 1961.
The Ban Chiang is a region that occupied northeastern Thailand from 1,000 BC to AD 200 and is “The original location where Ban Chiang culture was discovered and named a World Heritage Site in 1992 and is considered the most important prehistoric settlement yet discovered in Southeast Asia,” according to the warrants.
The U.S. import of the Ban Chiang artifacts constitutes a violation of the U.S. National Stolen Property Act, enacted after 1979 and the Archeological Resource Protection Act, according to the warrants.
Olson allegedly admitted to knowledge of the illegal imports, but committed the act anyway, even mislabeling the artifacts to make them look like modern made replicas, which fooled U.S. customs officials.
Markell unwittingly divulged info to the undercover agent as well. According to the warrant, he went so far as to suggest that LACMA knew of looted pieces, but had pursued them anyway. He also said they were “sticklers” for doing background checks on pieces.
“They knew,” claimed Markell, about an artifact, which was sought after by LACMA. It was an item, which was shipped from Thailand after a law passed prohibiting the export of the item in question, said the warrants. “Markell said that LACMA had found a loophole, but he was not clear on what that loophole was.”
In addition, the two suspects allegedly ran a convoluted donation scheme over the last 10 years, which benefited museum donors by overvaluing art objects. Apparently, the tax scheme was carefully crafted to stay under the radar because allegations state that items with a value of just under $5,000 were repeatedly made because they did not require extensive documentation from the IRS to legally qualify.
These are the types of allegations leveled toward the museums. Future charges may stem from import violations, tax fraud and receiving stolen property.
The warrants come shortly after the Getty Museum was forced to return looted items Italy last year. Although the individual Asian objects are of a much less value, they involved a much larger volume of items and appear to be a much more disturbing type of behavior from museum officials and others.
Both the art world and the public will soon know what’s to come of the matter, following the government’s multiple searches, and when and if, charges are filed against the Olson, Markell and usually upstanding institutions.