Federal agents carry material from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Thursday Jan. 24, 2008 in Los Angeles.Story Published: Jan 25, 2008 at 8:05 AM PSTStory Updated: Jan 25, 2008 at 8:05 AM PSTBy Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Federal agents raided several Southern California museums on Thursday, mostly in search of artifacts allegedly taken from Thailand’s Ban Chiang archeological site, one of the most important prehistoric settlements ever discovered in Southeast Asia. Authorities believe they were smuggled into the U.S. and donated at inflated prices so collectors could claim fraudulent tax deductions.
Court documents say a 79-year-old smuggler involved in the scheme boasted to an undercover agent that he had more items from Ban Chiang than Thailand itself did. He said he was being sent the items as they were being dug up, in violation of Thai and international law.
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.
In recent years the American art industry including museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the J. Paul Getty Museum in California has agreed to return to Italy artifacts the Italian government says were looted or stolen.
Court documents indicate Thursday’s raids were related to 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.
Michael Govan, director and chief executive officer of LACMA, estimated about 60 items donated to the museum over the past decade have come under suspicion. He said the museum is cooperating with the investigation.
“They were seemingly quite regular objects to be gifted,” Govan said. “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 also 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 return 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.
Investigators also searched Markell’s gallery and home. A phone and e-mail message left for Markell were not immediately returned. A call to a phone listed as Olson’s went unanswered.
Court documents said that 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, Jonathan 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 would not miss the item because it wasn’t “an earth-shattering piece,” the museum accepted the donation, the documents said.