South California museums antiquities scheme: Man in Bowers probe says he did nothing wrong. Robert Olson supplied hundreds of pieces of ancient pottery and other artifacts to prominent museums throughout Southern California, court documents show, including the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. Now, he’s at the center of an investigation into looted artifacts and alleged tax schemes that stretches from rural Thailand to the desert of New Mexico.

The man identified as “the smuggler” in a federal investigation into stolen artifacts lives in a cluttered two-bedroom apartment in Cerritos and works out of a pair of rented storage lockers sealed with cheap gym locks.Olson is 79 years old, with tired eyes and two days of white stubble on his chin. He insists he did nothing wrong and, a day after federal agents raided his home, says he has government documents that show he was operating within the law.

But when he goes to look for those documents, he can’t find them. “Aw, they took ‘em,” he says. “Those lousy bums.”

Investigators believe that Olson sold and donated to the Bowers Museum dozens of Native American ladles that had been taken from federal land without a permit. They also believe he imported stolen Thai antiquities and, through donors, provided them to museums, especially the Bowers.

Olson has not been charged with any crimes. He casts himself as a middleman, who bought both the ladles and the Thai antiquities from private dealers and then sold them without asking too many questions about where they came from.

“I bought from people who, evidently, were breaking the law,” he said. But he also said: “If it wasn’t for people illegally digging up stuff, there wouldn’t be museums.”

Olson said he first approached the Bowers Museum in 1979. He was a turquoise dealer who had hit some hard times and had a vast collection of Native American ladles he wanted to sell.

He had found one of the ladles himself, tucked into a rocky outcropping in New Mexico. Court documents indicate that it came from the El Malpais National Monument, and that Olson did not have permission to remove it.

He had purchased the rest of his collection from private sellers 72 rare ladles in all, the largest collection in the world, he believes. The Bowers’ chief curator at the time, Armand Labbé, “made me a deal where he’d give me $10,000 if I’d donate half and sell the other half,” Olson said.During their conversations, Olson mentioned that he had recently visited Thailand to attend a wedding. Labbé said he was interested in Thai antiquities from the Ban Chiang culture, which existed as long as 3,000 years ago.The two agreed that if Olson returned to Thailand and brought back Ban Chiang artifacts, the Bowers would exhibit them in a special show. Olson said he had a stroke last year and could not remember exactly when that show was, but it generated some interest in Thai antiquities and new business for him.He started making trips to Thailand every two or three months to buy antiquities; over time, he developed a network of about half a dozen dealers whom he would visit in person. He said he even had a house in Thailand for some time in the 1980s.He would purchase the artifacts and then pay a shipping company

which he would not name to send them to the United States. He says now that he never questioned how the shipping company was getting the artifacts out of Thailand.According to a search-warrant affidavit, though, Olson once told an undercover agent that his shippers affixed “Made in Thailand” labels to the antiquities to make them look like replicas so he could get them out of Thailand.Under Thai law, any antique that was buried or otherwise abandoned is the property of the Thai government. That means those artifacts cannot be sold or traded without the government’s permission.

Olson knew about that law. But asked whether he knew he was trading in artifacts that belonged to Thailand, he said: “Well, I don’t know for sure about that, I don’t know. I guess the excavations, technically, legally, aren’t legal.

“But the fact that it was dug up and presented to my people, I bought it,” he continued. “If you’re living in this land and you dig up a hole in your land, it may be or it may not be legal.”

Olson also said he closely followed an international treaty that governs the trade of antiquities across borders a treaty that Thailand has not signed. “They can claim whatever they want to claim,” he said. “Since they won’t sign the… agreement, I don’t give a damn about them.”Because he was buying the artifacts cheap in Thailand, Olson said he could sell them at wholesale prices to his handful of regular clients. But appraisers would put a much higher value on the artifacts, according to court documents, allowing his clients to take a bigger tax deduction when they donated them to museums.Olson described the appraisers named in the court documents as friends he met through Labbé, the Bowers curator. But he said he rarely put his clients in contact with any particular appraiser.

In all, Olson said the Bowers Museum has “hundreds, hundreds of items” from him. Court documents indicate that he also worked with a gallery owner who supplied artifacts to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

At one point, the documents describe a meeting between Olson, Labbé and an undercover agent. Olson asked Labbé to tell the agent where all the Bowers Museum’s Ban Chiang antiquities came from.

“Labbé chuckled and said he did not want to say,” the document, a search-warrant affidavit, states. “As Labbé was saying this, the smuggler was pointing his thumb into his own chest and laughing.”

The same affidavit claims Olson once bragged that he had more Ban Chiang artifacts than anyone else in the world including Thailand.Business has slowed for Olson in recent years, although he still sells occasional pieces to private collectors. He said the Bowers has not accepted any artifacts from him since the death of Labbé, in 2005. He hasn’t been back to Thailand in at least two years.He lives in a modest, second-story apartment in Cerritos with a parking-lot view and pictures from Thailand decorating the walls. He has a calendar from Thailand in his kitchen, still turned to July. He has stacks of old paper pads left over from his import business, Bobbyo Imports; they list an Irvine address.

He spends much of his time sitting in an easy chair and watching television. That’s where he was when federal agents banged on his door early Thursday. They seized photographs, documents and books; he says they also took several artifacts from his storage lockers.

He struggled to push open the roll-up door to one of his lockers early Friday. Inside, he found that the agents had left a few ceramic bowls carved with geometric designs, as well as three large bronze drums.

The artifacts, he said, were all thousands of years old. But several bore tiny white labels with black lettering: Made in Thailand.