Sunday, 10 July 2011

South Cal Museum Looted Artefacts Investigations Still Ongoing?

The US authorities seem to be dragging their feet over the investigations of looted antiquities allegedly bought by several South Californian Museums in three years ago. One of the museums concerned, the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park say they've only received one follow-up call from the federal government since its agents swarmed the building in early January 2008 (Kelly Bennett, 'A Surprise Museum Raid, Then ... Silence', Voice of San Diego July 10, 2011). The investigation concerned the donation to museums of material looted in Southeast Asia, for which in the US tax refunds can be gained. The system is open to abuse, because by assessing the value of the items at a higher value than they really have, donors can get a hefty tax refund which bears no relation to what they spent and therefore they are not in fact entitled. It is not clear how extensive this type of scam is in the US museum world - we recall the discussion about how the value of the artefacts in the Four Corners case was assessed.

The evils of this case however involved more than just tax fraud. In order to support the inflated values, the galleries were involving a Thai-based scholar, Roxanna Brown, whose signature appeared on some of the evaluation forms - but these had been faked (though it appears that Brown had been involved in some way at some stage in collaboration with a US gallery owner in the trade of some of the antiquities involved). More to the point, the objects themselves were looted from sites of the Ban Chiang culture and illegally taken out of Thailand.

It was 67 objects which were on display in the Mingei International Museum (artefacts, jewellery and pottery) which were involved.
Federal agents commanded the museum to whisk those items from public view and lock them away in storage. Museum staff plucked their images from museum literature, too, as if the items had vanished from the collection. The 67 items are still sitting there, hidden, three-and-a-half years later. The raid revealed publicly a years-long investigation into an alleged smuggling chain that tied the Mingei and several other Southern California museums to potentially illegally looted artifacts from the Thai archaeological site.
The investigation seems to have ground to a halt because the only person so far to have had charges filed, Roxanne Brown was arrested under disturbing circumstances when she came to the US and was imprisoned, where due to scandalous treatment she died in tragic circumstances in a US prison cell before she'd even been questioned properly (a three-part story of her life can be found here).

Read the full story here: A Surprise Museum Raid, Then ... Silence

Also a follow-up text: Museum Smuggling Probe: What to Read

Vignette: Slouching along to a Maneki Neki exhibition.

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