Tag Archives: Bowers Museum

Operation Antiquity: Prison for Antiquities Dealer Behind Looting and Tax Fraud Scheme

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum during an early morning raid in Santa Ana Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008.

UPDATE: My article on the case has been posted at The Art Newspaper here.

UPDATE: The Markells will return 337 antiquities to Thailand as part of their sentencing agreement. Details on the seized objects are linked below.

UPDATE: The Mingei International Museum in San Diego has returned 68 looted Ban Chiang objects to Thailand. See below for details.

Antiquities dealers Jonathan and Cari Markell were sentenced by a federal judge on Monday for their roles in the smuggling and tax fraud scheme that triggered sweeping federal raids on California museums in 2008.


Jonathan and Cari Markell with the Dalai Lama

On Jan 24th, 2008, some 500 federal agents served warrants on 13 locations that received objects tied to the smuggling network, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the home of Barry MacLean, a private collector in Chicago.

The investigation sent shockwaves through the art world, suggesting that even amid an international scandal over the Getty Museum’s role in looting, other local museums had continued to do business with the black market. Some critics later called the raids over-zealous, noting that despite that the massive investigation, the government had failed to win jail time in the long-delayed criminal trials that followed.

That changed on Monday, when Jonathan Markell, 70, was sentenced to 18 months in prison followed by a year of supervised release for making false declarations while importing antiquities from South East Asia. Markell and his wife Cari, 68, were also sentenced to probation for their role in a related tax evasion scheme in which looted antiquities were donated to local museums in exchange for inflated tax write-offs.

The couple was also ordered to pay $25,000 to cover the costs of repatriating hundreds of antiquities seized by federal agents in raids on their Los Angeles home and gallery, Silk Roads Gallery.

Joyce White

Dr. Joyce White

Dr. Joyce White, a University of Pennsylvania expert on Ban Chiang culture who served as an expert for prosecutors on the case, said in a declaration that the 10,000 looted artifacts seized during the federal investigation represented as much as 175 times more material than what was recovered during scientific excavations of the site in the 1970s. The Markells were among the “key players” who developed a U.S. market for artifacts from the site, a demand that fueled rampant looting there.

In a Dec. 8 letter to federal judge Dean Pregerson, Jonathan Markell expressed remorse for his actions and pled for leniency in his wife’s sentencing. “My remorse over my dishonest actions will continue for the rest of my life, as my actions have put my family in jeopardy emotionally, socially, psychologically and financially for the past eight years,” wrote Markell, who graduated with an art history degree from UC Berkeley and got an MBA from Columbia University in arts administration. “I also owe an apology to the people whose heritage is the Ban Chiang civilization,” the world heritage site in Thailand where much of the material he sold was looted.

Operation Antiquity, the federal investigation of the Markells smuggling network, was one of the most aggressive government efforts to disrupt the illicit antiquities trade in history. For five years, Todd Swain, a federal agent with the National Park Service, operated undercover as an art collector to gather evidence against the Markells and their principal supplier, alleged smuggler Robert Olson. After several delays, Olson’s criminal trial is now scheduled for May 2016.


Roxanna Brown

Roxanna Brown, a respected American expert in Southeast Asian ceramics, was caught up in the investigation and died in federal custody in 2008 after suffering a medical emergency after her arrest in Seattle. Court records show Brown provide falsified appraisals for the Markells and worked closely with Olsen to bring looted material into the United States. The federal government eventually settled a lawsuit brought by her family for $880,000.

In 2014, the Bowers Museum of Art agreed to return 542 ancient vases, bowls and other artifacts to Thailand. Other museums have waited for the outcome of the Markell’s criminal case before deciding what to do with objects from the couple and its network of donors.

UPDATE: The Mingei International Museum in San Diego has returned 68 looted Ban Chiang objects to Thailand, according to a federal law enforcement official. The objects were among those targeted during federal raids on the museum in 2008. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment on the returns.

UPDATE: Jerry Coughlan, an attorney who represents the Mingei, confirmed the returns on Thursday, saying all 68 objects had been donated by the Markells. After the museum raids in 2008, the Mingei had offered to return the objects to Thailand and held them in storage while awaiting instructions from federal officials.

“Essentially, the government called and said it would not press charges against the Mingei but asked us to return items to Thailand,” Coughran said. “They were shipped in the last day or two and should be arriving soon.”

It is exceedingly rare for antiquities investigations to end in criminal convictions, and federal prosecutors hope the Markell convictions will act as a deterrent to the market.

“By holding US-based antiquities marketers fully accountable for their role in promoting the antiquities market and thereby stimulating the global destruction of irreplaceable heritage resources, this court has a special opportunity to dampen the trade and encourage others conducting similar enterprises to change their behavior and choices,” White testified.

Here are links to recent court records from the Markell case:

Here is a list of objects seized from the Markell’s home and gallery:

Markell seizures

Here is my past coverage of the Operation Antiquity case:

Here is Joyce White’s presentation on the case, “Hot Pots, Museum Raids and the Race to Uncover Asia’s Archaeological Past.”


SCOOP: Bowers Museum will return 500+ Thai antiquities seized during 2008 raids

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008

On the front page of this month’s The Art Newspaper I report that the Bowers Museum of Art has agreed to return 542 ancient vases, bowls and other artifacts to Thailand. The objects were allegedly looted from one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia and smuggled into the United States by an antiquities trafficking ring that was broken up in 2008.

The Bowers will also forfeit 71 Native American ladles were allegedly taken from federal or native lands in the United States. The Bowers acquired the ladles and Thai antiquities from Robert Olson, an alleged smuggler who I profiled in 2008. Olson has admitted buying illegally excavated objects from looters and middlemen and bragged that his collection Ban Chiang artifacts and Native American ladles were the largest in the world. He currently faces a December trial on federal charges in Los Angeles.

The returns mark additional fallout from the 2008 federal raids on several Southern California museums. (Our previous coverage can be found here.) From the story:

The returns are the result of a non-prosecution agreement between the museum and the Los Angeles US Attorney’s office stemming from federal museum raids carried out in 2008. Following a five-year undercover operation, federal agents seized hundreds of allegedly looted antiquities at the Bowers, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the Los Angeles County Museum. The authorities were investigating an alleged smuggling network that funneled looted Thai, Cambodian and Burmese artefacts into local museums, often through tax-deductible donations based on inflated appraisals, court records show.

In exchange for the returns to Thailand, government prosecutors agreed not to criminally charge anyone at the Bowers, the museum’s lawyer says.

“The Bowers Museum is pleased to have resolved this matter without any finding that the museum violated any law,” says Manuel Abascal. “The Bowers stopped collecting archaeological items years ago, and has instead focused on bringing important archaeological items from foreign museums to the United States for exhibition, such as the Terracotta Warriors.” Abascal says the museum had offered to return the objects years ago. “Since Armand Labbé died, it’s been in our basement. We’re more than happy to give it up,” he says. “We never conceded it was taken in an ill-gotten way.”

Most of the contested objects – many of which which are not of display quality but have cultural and archaeological importance – come from Ban Chiang, a Neolithic settlement and burial site that was continuously occupied from 1500BC to 900BC, making it one of the most important prehistoric settlements found in Southeast Asia. Thai law has claimed state ownership of all artefacts since 1961, a claim that would be recognized under American law if certain conditions are met.

Bowers donations

Since the 2008 raids, the fate of the seized objects at the Bowers and other museums have remained in limbo while the case inches through the legal process. Last year I reported on mounting frustration that little had resulted from the dramatic federal raids.

No other museums tied to the case have returned the contested objects, though some have tried:

 At the Pacific Asia Museum, 147 objects donated by various clients linked to the case remain in storage under “constructive custody” of federal authorities, a museum official said.

“The museum has not been told to return the articles,” says the interim deputy director Susana Smith Bautista. “Because [US authorities] retain ‘constructive custody’ of these works, the objects cannot leave the museum premises without written permission.”

The Mingei Museum offered to return 67 objects seized by federal authorities soon after the raids, says the museum’s attorney, Jerry Coughlan: “We have heard nothing other than a request that we continue to hold them.”

A lawyer for the Los Angeles County Museum, which has about 60 objects that were targeted in the raids, declined to comment.

The Bowers allegations were described in detailed search warrant affidavits released at the time of the raids.

The court records portray Armand Labbé, the museum’s longtime chief curator, as a willing participant in the alleged smuggling scheme, which orchestrated the donation of looted antiquities in exchange for inflated tax write-offs for donors. Labbe built much of the Ban Chiang collection with donations from clients of alleged smuggler Robert Olson, an antiquities dealer, according to the search warrant affidavits.

In a September 2003 meeting described in the affidavits, the undercover agent met Labbé at Olson’s storage locker. The curator pointed out several objects he wanted donated, and instructed the agent to pay Olson in cash for the objects and state that he had owned them for more than a year, as required to receive a tax write-off of their stated value.

Olson told the agent that he was getting objects directly from Ban Chiang, the affidavits say, and showed Labbé and the agent photos of the sites from which the objects had recently been excavated. On another occasion, Olson is alleged to have boasted that he had more Ban Chiang material than Thailand and said a client of his had donated some $250,000 worth to the Bowers.

The agent paid Olson $12,000 for the Ban Chiang objects and received an appraisal that put their value at more than $43,000. Labbé accepted that and a second donation from the agent before he died in April 2005.

In September of that year, the agent spoke with Keller, the director of the Bowers, about making a third donation. Keller said he knew Olson and had been to his warehouse, but refused to accept the donation. Labbé’s girlfriend, an appraiser, told the agent that Keller had personally donated to the museum on several occasions, the affidavits say.

Labbe presents Queen Sirikit of Thailand with a copy  of his monograph,  Ban Chiang: Art and Prehistory of Northeast Thailand, during her visit to Los Angeles.

Labbe presents Queen Sirikit of Thailand with a copy of his monograph, “Ban Chiang: Art and Prehistory of Northeast Thailand”, during her visit to Los Angeles.

The story details several indictments in the case that have been unsealed in recent months:

Olson was criminally indicted in 2008 along with Jonathan Markell, a Los Angeles gallery owner who arranged the donation of Ban Chiang objects to several museums. The indictment, which was only unsealed in January of this year, accused the men of one count of conspiracy to import antiquities from Burma and Cambodia and three counts of making false statements on customs forms.

In July 2003, both men allegedly travelled to Thailand to purchase the looted antiquities. The objects were listed on customs forms at 25% of their actual purchase price, and the objects were falsely described, with an ancient Burmese Buddha listed as a “wooden sitting man”, the indictment alleges.

Markell and his wife Cari were indicted in 2010 on federal tax charges that related to their alleged role in writing inflated appraisals of donations of Ban Chiang material to the museums. An attorney for Jonathan Markell declined to comment, and his wife’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Olson was separately indicted in 2012 with Marc Pettibone. Pettibone is an American living in Thailand who, the indictment alleges, bought the Ban Chiang antiquities directly from “diggers” and shipped them to Olson by bribing Thai officials. Both were charged with the transportation, possession and importation of stolen antiquities.

Olson could not be reached, and his federal public defender declined to make any comment. He has previously said he bought antiquities in Thailand but did not act illegally. Pettibone, who is being sought by the authorities, could not be reached by time of going to press.

Read the complete story “Victory for Thailand in US” on The Art Newspaper’s site here. Here are copies of those recently unsealed indictments:

USA vs. Robert Olson and Jonathan Markell

USA vs. Jonathan and Cari Markell




Five Years After California Museum Raids, More Anger Than Indictments

Federal agents descend upon the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana during a raid in January 2008In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason has an update on the 2008 federal raids of Southern California museums:

When hundreds of federal agents raided four Southern California museums early one January morning in 2008, it set the art world ablaze, suggesting that even amid an international looting scandal museums had continued to do business with the black market in stolen antiquities.

LACMA's Michael Govan asks federal agents permission to enter the museum on the morning of the January 2008 raids.

LACMA’s Michael Govan asks federal agents permission to enter the museum on the morning of the January 2008 raids.

Acting on evidence gathered during a five-year undercover probe, investigators seized more than 10,000 artifacts at the museums and more than a half-dozen other locations in California and Illinois. The objects had allegedly been illegally excavated from sites across South East Asia, smuggled into Los Angeles and donated to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei Museum in San Diego and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, according to search warrant affidavits.

But in the years since the high-profile raids, no museum officials or collectors have been indicted, and none of the seized objects have been returned to the countries from which they were allegedly stolen.

Days before the statute of limitations on criminal charges were about to expire in January, a federal grand jury indicted two men in the case. Robert Olson, an 84-year old Van Nuys man, and Marc Pettibone, a 62-year-old American living in Thailand, are both accused of one count of conspiracy and one of trafficking in stolen goods. Two peripheral players in the alleged scheme pleaded guilty to similar charges last year.

2008-may-9-last-photoSeveral people targeted by prosecutors — including Bowers curator Armand Labbe and antiquities dealer Joel Malter — died during the 11-year investigation. A third target, UCLA trained pottery expert Roxanna Brown, was indicted in 2008 and died from health complications while in federal custody, leading the federal government to settle a lawsuit brought by her family for $880,000.

“I’m baffled,” said Stephen Urice, a professor at the University of Miami law school who has written critically of the raids. “Given the amount of illicit antiquities moving through the U.S. borders, these guys are really hacks. Surely there must be more significant people out there.”

In recent interviews, several people with direct knowledge of the investigation expressed anger and frustration, saying the case had languished in the U.S. Attorney’s office. They described Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns, who has directed the case since its inception, as overzealous, eager to send federal agents into museums to gather evidence but too distracted or overwhelmed with other cases to bring timely criminal charges.

As a result, they say, the case has wasted millions of dollars and inadvertently encouraged the very black market it targeted by suggesting the government is weak on enforcement. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment and feared imperiling the criminal case against Olson and Pettibone, which is set to go to trial in June.

You can read the full story here. You can find the previous LA Times coverage of the case here:

Raid story: Raids suggest a deeper network of looted art

Chicago raid on Barry MacLean: Probe of Stolen Art Goes National

Robert Olson profile: “Intrigue but no glamour for smuggling case figure”

Roxanna Brown’s story: Part I, Part II, Part III and settlement

Inflated Art Appraisals are Rampant: You Say That Art Is Worth How Much? 

Here is the Olson and Pettibone indictment:

And the indictments and plea agreements for the “peripheral figures” mentioned in the story.

Michael Malter

Robert Perez