Sunday, 22 August 2010

Stolen Cambodian artefacts repatriated from US museums case (Operation Antiquity)

In a feelgood press release, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), summarise current progress in Operation Antiquity ('Ancient artifacts returned to Cambodia via the USNS Mercy ICE/HSI led investigations have museums looking closer at their collections'). In Operation Antiquity, "federal agents from ICE/HSI, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) worked together in a massive investigation that unveiled an interconnected web of individuals involved in the plundering of Southeast Asian ancient objects then smuggling and selling them within the U.S.".
Operation Antiquity initially focused on Robert Olson, a U.S. citizen and importer of Southeast Asian items. Olson worked with Cambodian and Thai "brokers." These brokers hired private "diggers" who visited ancient sites with the purpose of pillaging, sometimes cutting away friezes and other parts of a structure's ornamentation. Olson falsified documents as the goods were shipped into the United States. Olson was breaking several U.S. and international laws and bilateral agreements in his profit-making venture. His nearly 25-year scam was so prodigious that Crabb says Olson was responsible for Thailand's loss of one-third of its remnants from the ancient Ban Chiang culture.

But when the law caught up with Olson, federal agents, working undercover, discovered they had just scratched the surface. One of Olson's associates was a wealthy and well-traveled Wall Street financial analyst who was also cashing in on the theft and importation of Southeast Asian antiquities. Another buyer was a private museum owner who bought vast amounts of illicit items concealing them in containerized cargo shipments. One shipment authorities intercepted contained a 7th century Khumer sandstone head and a 2nd century Dong Son bronze container. Together these items were worth more than $35,000. But coming through U.S. customs, the smuggler declared the entire shipment as "handicrafts" worth $250.

The smuggling scheme not only involved undervaluing the worth of ancient items to pass them through U.S. customs, but inflating their value when the purpose was to donate an artifact to a museum and write it off as a charitable tax donation.

In January 2008, more than 400 federal agents from the ICE Special Agent in Charge (SAC) office in Los Angeles, the NPS and the IRS conducted a massive raid, sanctioned by search warrants issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office in California. Law enforcement officials surprised owners, curators, registrars and collection mangers from 16 museums and galleries in California and Illinois, interviewing them and examining their collections. Several people were indicted, one individual was prosecuted and thousands of objects were seized.

The press release makes no mention of a victim of the case, Roxanna Brown. Whatever happened to Mr Olsen? Is "Operation Antiquity" over now?

The ICE press release goes on to say that as a result of these investigations US museums are increasingly looking again at their acquisition policies. As these tighten up, the dealers in stolen antiquities will be looking increasingly to the no-questions-asked private collectors' market to maintain their profits. US authorities however will be on their tail here too:
U.S. customs inspectors have [...] wised up to the tricks of the antiquity trafficking trade, and these officials have gained more expertise in how to catch this type of thief. An unfortunate phenomenon in today's world is that historical and cultural artifacts that are looted and smuggled out of their home countries are often auctioned and sold in cyberspace, rapidly changing hands. But the Internet is no safe haven for criminals of any kind, including illegal traffickers of antiquities. [...] ICE Special Agent Razmik Madoyan of SAC Los Angeles who led an Internet investigation that helped recover some of the artifacts, said "Sometimes people turn a blind eye to what they are purchasing and don't care about the provenance. If it looks good they buy it. But if these individuals are purchasing historical or cultural property that's been stolen, they are breaking U.S. and international laws." The red flag indicators of stolen artifacts, said Madoyan, "are an item's lack of provenance or provenance with nonspecific item descriptions or country of origin, such as "Babylonian items" or "the Middle East."

"ICE's Homeland Security Investigations goes the distance when it comes to investigating and tracking the true ownership of ancient treasures being traded and sold within the U.S.," said Herbert Kaufer, acting executive deputy assistant director of ICE International Affairs. "We'll hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes and use every law on the books against aspiring profiteers so they'll learn to keep their paws off historical and cultural heirlooms they have no right to acquire".

Lawyers like Miami's Adler and Urice of course are not supportive of the idea of "using every law in the book" to go after such culture thieves. The rest of us though would approve the adoption of tougher policies by the US authorities to fight this problem, accompanied of course by the appropriate and effective tightening up of US law.

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