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Date Posted: 22:41:29 01/26/08 Sat
Author: Bob O. Link

January 24, 2008


By Karen Kucher and Debbi Farr Baker

SAN DIEGO – Federal agents conducted a raid at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park Thursday morning in an investigation of an alleged artifact smuggling operation.

Three other museums and an art gallery in Southern California also were raided in the culmination of the five-year probe.

The investigation is focused on an alleged smuggling pipeline that authorities say funneled looted artifacts to museums and enabled donors to receive inflated appraisals for the pieces in order to file false tax returns, federal documents say.

Search warrants were served on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Federal authorities said about 70 items at Mingei were likely illegally obtained. No estimates were given for the other museums.

Shortly after 8 a.m., about 25 agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and 15 with the Internal Revenue Service went into the Mingei, some carrying boxes and large bags. About an hour later, officials placed a handwritten sign on the front door announcing the museum was closed for the day. Museum spokeswoman Martha Ehringer said some school group tours scheduled were canceled and visitors were turned away at the door.

Agents didn't leave until after 6 p.m. Items were fingerprinted, tagged and piles of documents were seized, but no artifacts were removed from the museum.

Museum officials expected to reopen Friday.

Rob Sidner, the Mingei's director, held a news conference around noon and said the raid came as a surprise to the museum.

“This is an immense shock to us,” Sidner said. “We had no sense that anything was untoward. We believe we did our absolute due diligence. It's terribly shocking.”

According to a federal affidavit, an undercover National Parks Service special agent bought and then donated stolen Thai archaeological resources to the Mingei on five occasions, starting in June 2006.

The donations were items representative of the “Ban Chiang” culture, which existed from 1,000 B.C. to about 200 A.D. in Northeast Thailand and has been called one of the most important prehistoric settlements yet discovered in Southeast Asia. Sidner said the pieces were scheduled to be displayed March 1.

According to a federal affidavit, the main targets of the investigation are Bob Olson, identified as an alleged art smuggler, and Jon Markell, owner of a Los Angeles Asian art gallery.

As part of the scheme, Markell sold the antiques to the undercover agent for one price and then gave him inflated appraisals of the items, which he could use to take a charitable deduction on his tax return, the affidavit said.

The affidavit details communication between Markell and Sidner as Markell offered the antiquities to the Mingei on behalf of the undercover agent.

It says the undercover agent met with Mingei staff once in a meeting that was recorded and that there were six recorded telephone calls, 11 e-mails and nine letters exchanged regarding the museum's acceptance of Thai artifacts.

The donations to the Mingei included a Ban Chiang water buffalo vessel, bracelets, beads, pottery anvils, spindle whorls and rollers. According to the affidavit, the highest appraisal on an item was $6,000, even though the undercover agent had paid $1,500 for the piece.

The affidavit said Sidner at one point asked Markell if there were any provenance – or origin – problems with the artifacts, and the gallery owner responded the pieces had all come from his collection and there were no problems.
In fact, since 1961, Thai law has prohibited antiques from being exported from the country unless a license is obtained, according to the affidavit. A Thai official said the government has never given permission to anyone to take excavated antiquities out of Thailand for private sale.

The affidavit says the undercover agent handed Sidner and members of the Mingei museum's curatorial staff copies of the Thai antiquity law in June 2006.

The document says appraisals were prepared by Markell but were electronically signed with another appraiser's signature.

The undercover agent on at least one occasion mailed a copy of the appraisal to Sidner and a letter that stated that Markell had signed another person's name to the document.

The gallery owner told the undercover agent that he had done appraisals and donations of Ban Chiang antiquities for himself and for his relatives, which were all donated to the Mingei, according to the federal affidavit.

Sidner said the museum is fully cooperating with authorities, and that if any goods turn out to be stolen, the museum will “certainly return them to whomever they belong to.”

Museum officials relied on a dealer they trusted, Sidner said, but he acknowledged some regret over not discovering fraud.

“We probably should have known,” he said.

Under the search warrant, federal agents planned to identify and catalog all material purchased or obtained with the assistance of Olson or Markell, photos, books and other materials on archaeological resources from Thailand and records dating back to 1998 on transactions involving Olson, Markell or their clients.

The affidavit also allowed the museum's computer records to be searched.


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