Museum Security Network

Mingei points to late curator in smuggling case. An art curator who was esteemed for his expertise but accused of consorting with art smugglers apparently led San Diego's Mingei museum into the illegal artifact ring busted by federal agents this week.

The Balboa Park institution is one of five California museums caught up in an investigation that is bringing attention to the gray areas of how pieces are acquired in the world of art collecting and museums. Mingei Director Rob Sidner has said the museum wouldn’t have worked with art dealers Jon and Cari Markell if they hadn’t been vouched for by Labbé, a trusted expert and author who sat on the Mingei’s board for 15 years. But a search warrant depicts an entirely different image of Labbé, who died of cancer in 2005. He worked with an art smuggler to orchestrate donations for the Bowers Museum that also provided inflated tax write-offs for donors, according to a warrant based on a federal agent’s five-year undercover investigation. Labbé apparently knew the items were stolen: The undercover agent describes one occasion when Labbé chuckled about which laws he would choose to follow and about taking pains not to look at photos of illegal excavations. 

Still, Mingei founder Martha Longenecker said yesterday that she doesn’t believe the accusations against Labbé, who also taught art and anthropology at the University of California Irvine and California State University Fullerton. “He was just a very, very fine person,” Longenecker said yesterday. “It’s just a crime to put his name with anything like what they are talking about.” Longenecker led the museum until late 2005 and also was introduced to the Markells by Labbé. 

Labbé was on the Mingei’s board almost continuously from 1993 until his death, and he curated two exhibits on pre-Columbian art at the museum. He also donated items now in the Mingei’s collection, though museum officials said they couldn’t determine yesterday which ones they were. Labbé was responsible for bringing the first ancient Thai object into the San Diego museum’s collection, they said. 

“He was widely respected for his scholarship and as a board member,” said Cathy Sang, museum development director. But one longtime colleague said Labbé operated on the edges of ethics when it came to collecting. “Armand was a very sincere person, but he felt there was a gray area that could be legally and ethically used in the promotion of art,” said Paul Apodaca, a curator at the Bowers Museum until 1995 and now a Chapman University professor of American studies. 

Apodaca, who said he didn’t share his colleague’s views on collecting, expresses fears that critics will focus on Labbé’s role in the scandal rather than the people involved who are still alive. In San Diego, it remains to be seen if Mingei officials had any knowledge of problems with 23 Thai items seized by agents during a raid Thursday. Three other Southern California museums and two Los Angeles-area art galleries also were searched. 

Sidner, the museum director, denies that he and his staff knew anything was amiss with objects they have been collecting since 1998, although he acknowledges that they probably should have. In an e-mail sent yesterday to museum members, Sidner said Mingei officials have launched their own probe. He called it an “opportunity to reassess” the institution’s acquisitions policy and said that if anything improper is revealed, “we will take appropriate action.” 

Apodaca questioned whether officials at the five California museums could have been in the dark. “All of these people are supposed to be sophisticated people with understanding of the art and culture world,” he said. “So can people claim ignorance in a situation like that?” At the Bowers, where Labbé worked, federal affidavits detail a long relationship with art-smuggling suspect Bob Olson.

Olson allegedly had been selling items taken from Thailand’s Ban Chiang historical site, which dates back to 1000 B.C. Thai law prohibits the removal of certain historic objects. One affidavit refers to Olson as a “grave robber.” Other allegations contained in the affidavits: The undercover federal agent showed Labbé photos of Olson’s fresh dig in Thailand, and Labbé allegedly smiled and told the agent he didn’t want to see them. 

Labbé told the agent that in 1992 the museum sent letters to 100 foreign countries asking for copies of their laws and got three responses. He told the agent he was accepting a donated item, bought from the smuggler, because he couldn’t determine what rules the museum was following. The agent reported that Labbé was chuckling. Labbé also told the agent that he was “torn” because he wanted to abide by the law but he also wanted the donations. 

In addition to the Mingei and the Bowers, the other museums involved in the investigation are the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and the UC Berkeley Art Museum. No charges have been filed in relation to the items seized. This investigation follows other complaints about wrongful ownership of museum pieces. Last year, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles returned 40 major works that had been contested, and a former Getty curator of antiquities is on trial in Rome for allegedly buying illegally obtained works for the museum. Closer to home, a painting bought by San Diego Museum of Art was turned over to Mexican authorities in 2006 after it was discovered that it had been stolen from a church and then smuggled out of Mexico. 

“The art market is one of the great unregulated markets, and this is a problem for museums,” said Derrick Cartwright, director of the San Diego Museum of Art. Federal agents, who declined to discuss this week’s raids, agree that the art world can be difficult to crack. “It’s a very intricate network with layers of buyers and sellers,” said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack. Staff writers Robert L. Pincus and Tony Manolatos contributed to this report.   ——————————————————————————–  Jeanette Steele: (619) 293-1030; jen.steele@uniontrib.com   

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