Tag Archives: Stephen Urice

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

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Looted Antiquities at American Museums: An On-Going Crime, law professor argues

In January 2008, more than one hundred federal agents raided four Southern California museums. They seized scores of Southeast Asian antiquities that investigators said had been looted and illegally smuggled into Los Angeles before being donated at inflated values to the museums.

Since then, nothing much has happened in the case. But one legal expert is warning that the case represents a ticking time bomb for American museums, whose antiquities collections are still filled with looted antiquities.

If the raids result in convictions, the legal fallout could be devastating, argues Stephen K. Urice, a University of Miami law professor and one of the country’s foremost legal minds on cultural property.

Stephen K. Urice

“Continued possession of virtually all unprovenanced antiquities in public museums within the court’s jurisdiction would suddenly become actionable under the [National Stolen Property Act], and museums would be obligated to divest themselves of those collections promptly,” Urice writes. “Failure to do so would expose the antiquities to civil seizure and forfeiture proceedings, and the museums’ board and staff members to criminal liability.”

This doomsday scenario comes not from the alarmist fringes in the debate over antiquities but an avowed centrist. Urice is a former museum director with a PhD in archaeology, and was the founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s cultural law program. He has earned respect from archaeologists and museums alike for his dispassionate, middle-of-the-road analyses of museum policies and cultural property statutes.

That’s why Urice’s 39-page article in the Summer 2010 issue of the New Mexico Law Review is so striking. His analysis, now bubbling up in cultural circles, is too involved to present in full here. But in essence, it predicts a doomsday scenario based on a little noticed wrinkle in the NSPA, the key U.S. criminal law in antiquities looting cases.

LACMA Director Michael Govan asks federal agents to let him into the museum on the morning of the raid

In the 1977 McClain case, in which five Texas dealers were convicted of smuggling looted Mexican artifacts, prosecutors successfully asserted the antiquities were “stolen property” under US law if they were exported illegally from a foreign country with an enforced cultural property law that gives the government rightful owner of such artifacts. (According to the UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws, 180 countries have passed one or more such statutes ).

Urice reasons that this interpretation is easily extended to most museum antiquities collections, where the bulk of objects could be considered contraband because they lack provenance (ownership history) and valid export licenses.

Museums have believed that the statute of limitations would protect them from such claims. But Urice notes that a 1986 change in the NSPA added possession of such objects as a crime. Since possession is an on-going act, Urice writes, “even in situations where the museum had taken possession of an antiquity decades ago, there would be no statute of limitations defense.”

This hasn’t come up in past antiquities cases since prosecutors went after collectors or dealers. The Southern California raids, however, specifically targeted museums, which under McClain arguably possess stolen property. Urice argues that a successful conviction in the case would trigger a chain reaction, forcing other museums in the court district (such as the Getty) to disgorge their unprovenanced artifacts or have their officers face criminal indictment.

In Urice’s view, this is an unacceptable – and unintended — outcome of the law that would strip American museums of an important teaching tool. What to do?

Urice suggests several remedies. Among them is a law exempting museums from the potential fallout of Southern California case and other antiquities claims under the NSPA. A second one is to replace the NSPA with a new law with input from archaeologists and collectors — a likely bitter and tortuous process.

One question not addressed in the article: Are Urice’s warnings a present-day reality? After all, federal courts in New York and Texas have both found the McClain Doctrine to be the ruling precedent, making possession of looted antiquities an on-going federal crime. In order to seize the objects, the government would only need to establish probable cause that the objects were illegally exported — the burden would be on the museum to prove legal export, something that can’t be done for most antiquities. All that’s missing is a US Attorney interested in making such a bold case.

Whatever the answer, Urice’s article makes clear the legal struggle over looted antiquities did not end with the Getty scandal.

If the Southern California case moves forward, the worse may be yet to come.

HOT DOC: Urice on Unprovenanced Antiquities and the National Stolen Property Act

Our coverage of the January 2008 museum raids:

Raids Suggest A Deeper Network of Looted Antiquities

Federal Probe of Stolen Art Goes National

Roxanna Brown: A Passion for Art, a Perilous Pursuit (3-part series)