Wednesday, 8 July 2009

U.S. settles with family of scholar

The U.S. government has agreed to pay $880,000 to the estate of the late Roxanna Brown, the 62-year-old Southeast Asia scholar who died in federal custody in Seattle last year. Brown, a US citizen, directed the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University, in Thailand. She was arrested on a single charge of 'wire fraud' on May 9th 2008 in Seattle, where she was scheduled to speak at the University of Washington. During her imprisonment in a detention center at the SeaTac detention centre (a multi-story, maximum-security facility that serves the Northwest region) where she was awaiting transfer to Los Angeles to face the charge there, she complained of being ill and missed a court date. Four days later (May 14th) she died in her cell from a perforated ulcer for which no medical assistance had been supplied by federal authorities.

Ms Brown's arrest was part of last year's investigations into the donation of allegedly looted artefacts to US museums and related tax offences in a case which got a lot of media coverage at the time. In January 2008, hundreds of federal agents had raided the Bowers Museum in Orange County, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei Museum in San Diego and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, along with nine other locations in California and Illinois. Brown was expected to play a key role in the case as an expert witness and informant to government investigators. Her death in federal custody has been a setback to investigators; since it, there have been no public moves in the case.

In a paradoxical turn of events, Brown had become a target of the same investigators who she had earlier been aiding. She was arrested because her name was allegedly associated with the appraisal of objects for Jonathan and Cari Markell, Los Angeles gallery owners. Authorities said they had found her electronic signature on the appraisal forms that inflated the value of artwork. It is alleged that the gallery's clients then donated objects to local museums for inflated tax write-offs.

More disturbingly it was also alleged that Ms Brown had been involved in the sale of Thai antiquities to Robert Olson, an alleged smuggler from Cerritos (see the letter published in the LA Times which if genuine certainly raises some questions). The settlement therefore leaves unanswered broader questions about Brown's role in the alleged scheme.

The Los Angeles Times produced a lengthy three part portrait of the deceased and account of this case which made interesting reading:
Part 1: a passion for art, a perilous pursuit,
Part 2: Her career revived, scholar turns tipster,
Part 3: Once an aid in a federal probe, antiquities scholar becomes a key target .

Photo: Roxanna Brown during her years covering the Vietnam War (Fred Leo Brown)

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