4 Southland museums raided in looting probe: Authorities allege the facilities accepted, some knowingly, artifacts stolen from Asian and Native American sites. Galleries, offices and storage areas, including at LACMA, are searched.

By Jason Felch
Los Angeles Times
January 24, 2008

Federal agents carried out coordinated raids on four Southern California museums and a Los Angeles art gallery early today, the first public move in a five-year investigation of an alleged smuggling pipeline that authorities say funneled looted Southeast Asian and Native American artifacts into local museums.

Shortly after 7:30 a.m., search warrants were served on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.

The warrants gave agents broad authority to search the museums' galleries, offices, storage areas and computer archives for objects and records related to the primary targets of the investigation: an alleged art smuggler, Robert Olson, and the owner of a Los Angeles Asian art gallery, Jonathan Markell. Markell's Silk Roads Gallery on La Brea Avenue was also raided.

The warrants are based on an undercover investigation by an unnamed agent with the National Park Service, who presented himself as an eager new collector to Olson and Markell. Both men allegedly admitted their illegal activities to the agent and sold him recently looted objects.

The warrants claim the men also introduced the agent to museum officials who, in dozens of secretly tape-recorded meetings, accepted donations of looted art with values inflated to help the sellers obtain tax write-offs.

In the case of the Bowers and the Pacific Asia museums, the warrants clearly suggest that museum officials were aware that the objects were looted and overvalued and accepted them anyway.

LACMA, the Mingei and the UC Berkeley Art Museum all received similar donations from Markell or Olson over several years, the warrants say, but the documents are unclear about the extent to which museum officials knew of alleged theft or tax evasion.

"We are cooperating fully with the investigation," said LACMA spokeswoman Allison Agsten. She said LACMA had no further comments early this morning and was still trying to gather the facts surrounding the investigation.

At 8:30 a.m., agents from the Internal Revenue Service were still arriving at LACMA, adding to the more than 30 federal agents already on the premises. They brought computer equipment and printers, apparently for use in the transfer of files.

According to the warrants, Markell at one point told the agent that LACMA was "a stickler" for checking the background of pieces but also suggested the museum had found a loophole to import restrictions on some objects.

Agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the IRS and other federal agencies were also involved in the investigation, which is being guided by the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Dozens of agents showed up at the Markell residence on Irving Boulevard in Los Angeles before dawn and pounded on the front door, prompting a confused neighbor to call 911.

Agents were going in and out of the house with cardboard boxes and bubble wrap, inventorying documents and objects in the home. An empty 18-wheeler truck sat out front, waiting to be loaded.

Reached at home at 9:20 a.m., Markell's wife, Cari, said, "I have nothing to say right now."

"They don't come across as people who would risk their lives for a buck," said next-door neighbor Honnie Juda. Several other residents of the upscale neighborhood east of Hancock Park agreed, calling the Markells "great people."

In Orange County, more than three dozen agents raided the Bowers Museum after entering a service entrance about 7:50 a.m.

Though armed with a search warrant, agents had to press a button on an outside intercom and speak with museum employees before a secured door was opened.

When the entrance swung open, customs and IRS agents -- some carrying computer briefcases -- entered the premises accompanied by two Santa Ana police officers.

They wore jackets that covered their weapons but had badges clearly visible.

A museum landscape supervisor said he became frustrated after the agents told his crew it couldn't work in an interior patio area.

"One of the agents said this was a raid of some kind and I told myself, 'Hey, my God, this is the Bowers, one of the most respectable places,' " said the supervisor, who did not want to give his name.

Shortly before 8 a.m., about two dozen agents lined up at the front door of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. One of them knocked, the door opened, and the agents filed into the museum one by one.

Two armed customs agents guarded the door as employees waited outside.

At the Mingei museum in San Diego's Balboa Park, about 40 agents seized several artifacts and pieces of art beginning at 8 a.m., taking photographs and cataloguing each.

Four Mingei officials were interviewed by federal officials in their homes early today. They were unavailable for comment.

Would-be visitors to the museum were being turned away at 10 a.m., and a small group of art dealers from Switzerland was unable to keep its appointment with one of the museum's directors.

Susy Creamer, manager of the Balboa Park visitors center, said that when she arrived for work, there was a sign on the museum's front door reading, "Closed."

"I guess I'm going to have to tell visitors they're not going to the Mingei today," she said.

The 120 pages of search warrants filed publicly today paint a picture of rampant fraud and theft. The documents suggest that the involvement of American museums in the purchase of looted art is far more extensive than even recent high-profile scandals have indicated.

The art world has been hammered by claims from authorities in Italy and Greece that major American museums -- most prominently the J. Paul Getty -- purchased art that had been stolen from and smuggled out of those countries.

The Getty agreed last year to return 40 of its most prized objects, after similar deals by museums in Boston and New York. Marion True, the Getty's former antiquities curator, is on trial in Rome, accused of knowingly buying looted art, a charge she denies.

Today's raids, however, cast the activities of museums in a much harsher light. The alleged crimes described in the warrants continued amid and after the Getty scandal became public, suggesting some American museums have not changed collecting habits known to be illegal or at least questionable. The new allegations could also carry much more serious consequences for those implicated because they are being investigated by U.S. authorities on American soil.

The investigation targets ancient art allegedly stolen from Thailand, China, Myanmar and Native American archeological sites that ended up in museums across the Southland.
The contested objects are far less valuable than those returned by the Getty but they are far more numerous, and some of the alleged conduct by museum officials, contained in hours of recorded meetings, appears equally troubling.

Among the allegations made in the warrants:

  • Olson and Markell told the undercover investigator that they regularly bought Thai antiquities from looters and smugglers. Sometimes they smuggled them into the United States personally, they said. They sold them to clients in Los Angeles, including some museums that were aware of their origins.
  • Olson and Markell separately admitted running elaborate donation schemes, providing their clients with forged appraisals that inflated the value of objects by as much as 400%. They then helped these clients donate the looted objects to local museums, which gave the clients a tax write-off at the inflated value.
  • A senior curator at the Bowers Museum, now deceased, regularly accepted loans of objects he knew were looted from Thailand and Native American graves. The museum's current director, Peter Keller, also allegedly knew about the practice and had visited Olson's storage lockers. An appraiser claimed Keller participated in the donations scheme.
  • Curators at the Pacific Asia Museum accepted from the agent donations of objects they believed to be illegally exported from Thailand. A senior curator told the agent the museum "had a lot of Chinese stuff the Chinese government would not want exported," and continued to buy more.
  • LACMA, the Mingei and the Berkeley museum also regularly accepted donations from Markell, the warrants state, though it is unclear from the documents whether the museums knew the objects were illegal.

The records describe hundreds, perhaps thousands, of allegedly stolen artifacts that passed through the hands of Olson and Markell and were accepted by local museums.

Many come from the ancient civilization of the Ban Chiang, which occupied northeastern Thailand from 1000 BC to AD 200. "The original location where Ban Chiang culture was discovered was named a World Heritage Site in 1992 and is considered the most important prehistoric settlement yet discovered in Southeast Asia," the warrants say.

The warrants allege that the Ban Chiang objects are probably looted because they were first excavated by archeologists in 1967, six years after Thailand banned the export of antiquities. The Thai government never gave permission for the contested antiquities to leave the country. Moreover, importing such objects into the United States after 1979 was a violation of the U.S. National Stolen Property Act and the Archeological Resource Protection Act, the warrants state.

Other objects named in the warrants came from Myanmar, from which the U.S. has banned imports since 2003, and China, which has strict export laws governing its antiquities. There are also objects allegedly stolen from Native American sites in the U.S., the sale of which are controlled by federal laws.

The investigation began in 2003, when the undercover agent with the National Park Service posed as a buyer and began purchasing looted art from Olson, according to the warrants. Olson, the warrants say, specializes in Native American and Thai antiquities.Olson allegedly told the agent he had been importing objects from Ban Chiang since the 1980s and had never received a permit from the Thai government. He said he got objects "as they were being dug up" and knew it was illegal to ship them out of the country, the warrants say.

The smuggled antiquities were affixed with "Made in Thailand" labels, and sometimes painted over, to make them look to U.S. customs officials like modern replicas, Olson allegedly told the agent. Olson claimed at one point that he had more objects from Ban Chiang "than anyone else in the world, including Thailand itself."

Olson also claimed to have the largest collection of Native American ladles anywhere in the world and admitted he had dug for artifacts on public land in New Mexico without authorization, the warrants state.

In September 2003, federal agents intercepted a cargo shipment from Thailand destined for Olson and Markell. Markell and his wife own Silk Roads Gallery, which sells Asian and Buddhist art. Their website shows the smiling couple in a photo with the Dalai Lama.

Olson told the agent he sold the Markells antiquities he had smuggled into the U.S., the warrants say.

The agent began buying antiquities from the Markells. The agent tape-recorded 13 meetings and 110 phone calls with them discussing "the sale, importation and donation of stolen archaeological resources from Thailand, Myanmar and China, the last of which Markell said required "bribery of Chinese officials," according to the warrants.

Over time, the agent made 10 purchases from the Markells and donated many of those to local museums, the documents say. Markell routinely inflated the value of the agent's purchases with falsified appraisals attributed to a professor at Bangkok University, the warrants state. He used Olson and his wife as "disinterested third parties" to confirm the appraisal.

Many of the objects donated were valued at just under $5,000, the value at which the IRS required additional documentation.

Times staff writers Ari Bloomekatz, Paloma Esquivel, Robert Lopez, David Reyes and Richard Marosi contributed to this report.