Four California Museums Searched by Federal Agents for Looted Artifacts

Federal agents have raided a Los Angeles gallery and four Southern California museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as part of a five-year undercover investigation into the smuggling of looted antiquities from Thailand, Myanmar, China, and Native American sites, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The institutions searched include the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, and the Silk Roads Gallery in Los Angeles. While looted antiquities from Italy and Greece have been the subject of recent investigations, the raids were a startling development in the ongoing controversy. Detailed warrants gave the agents broad authority to search the museums' galleries, offices, storage areas, and computer archives, said the Los Angeles Times, and the coordinated nature of the raids, which took place in the early morning, suggest that the involvement of art institutions in the purchase of looted objects is far more extensive than was previously thought.

At the center of the investigation, which is being conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, the National Park Service, and the criminal investigation division of the Internal Revenue Service, are Roads Gallery owners Jonathan Markell, his wife, Cari, and Robert Olson. The search warrants and affidavits claim that Olson smuggled looted antiquities out of Thailand, Myanmar, and China, and that the Markells imported them and then arranged to donate them to museums on behalf of clients who took inflated tax deductions for the gifts. In addition, meetings between an undercover agent for the National Park Service posing as a collector and the Markells and representatives of some of the museums were detailed. What's more, in cases involving at least two institutions — the Bowers and Pacific Asia museums — curators appeared to be aware that the objects they were accepting as donations had been looted or were illegally imported.

Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said LACMA had in its collections about sixty objects related to the investigation that had been donated by the Markells or other museum members. Govan denied that the museum knew of, or had looked for, ways to get around the ban on imports of certain artifacts and defended the museum's process for reviewing potential donations. "There is no loophole that we know about," he said. "If anybody can identify one, we would be the first to close it."

Jason Felch. "Raids Suggest a Deeper Network of Looted Art." Los Angeles Times 01/25/2008.