January 25, 2008

Southern California Museums raided in antiquities fraud probe

Posted at 2:12 pm in Similar cases

It appears that the problem of illegally obtained antiquities in California’s Museums runs a lot deeper than the problems at the Getty. The artefacts potentially involved are not such high profile pieces, but the due diligence & integrity of these acquisitions by the institutions has to be called into doubt by events such as this.

San Francisco Chronicle

Museums raided in fraud probe
Southeast Asian antiquities allegedly obtained, smuggled
Greg Risling, Associated Press
Friday, January 25, 2008
(01-25) 04:00 PST Los Angeles —

Federal agents raided several Southern California museums Thursday in a search for Southeast Asian antiquities that authorities believe were illegally obtained, smuggled into the country and sold at inflated prices so sellers could claim fraudulent tax deductions.

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.

Court documents portray 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.

Michael Govan, director and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said about 60 items donated to the museum over the past decade have come under suspicion.

“They came from sources who were members of the museum for many years and regular donors,” he said.

Mingei Director Rob Sidner said the museum is cooperating fully with the investigation. Representatives from the Pacific Asia Museum did not return phone calls seeking comment.

A statement from the Bowers Museum said Indian items on display from El Malpais National Monument and Chaco Culture Historic Park in New Mexico are being examined by agents as to whether they had been removed without a permit. Items from the Ban Chiang area in Thailand also are being reviewed.

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, 62, who co-owns an Asian art gallery in Los Angeles with his wife, Cari.

The agent said the artifacts passed through U.S. customs because they had “Made in Thailand” labels affixed to them, making it appear they were replicas. Olson, 79, allegedly boasted to the agent he had more items from the Ban Chiang area than Thailand itself, according to an affidavit.

Court documents said the couple 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.”

A phone and e-mail message left for Markell wasn’t immediately returned. Attempts to reach Olson were unsuccessful.

The warrants detail a scam in which Markell sold antiquities worth a few hundred dollars at a markup to the undercover agent and then used false appraisals to increase the value of the pieces to just less than $5,000 – the Internal Revenue Service’s floor for requiring written appraisals to support tax deductions on donated art.

No Bay Area museums were raided, federal authorities said. However, a search warrant affidavit prepared by IRS agent Bonny Mackenzie said the UC Berkeley Art Museum accepted artifacts from the Ban Chiang culture from the Markells in recent years.

Museum officials referred calls to spokesman Jonathan Knapp, who said he would look into the matter but did not call back.

The Berkeley museum’s Web site lists at least 13 artifacts described as being from the “Ban Chiang culture,” including an urn, an anvil and bracelets.

Chronicle staff writer Demian Bulwa contributed to this report.

This article appeared on page B – 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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