Sunday, 19 May 2013

South Californian Museum Raids: Aftermath

 "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."

Back in January 2008, four Southern California museums (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) were raided by US federal authorities.
Acting on evidence gathered during a five-year undercover probe, investigators seized more than 10,000 artifacts at the museums and more than half a dozen other locations in California and Illinois. The objects had allegedly been illegally excavated from sites across Southeast Asia [...]  according to search warrant affidavits. 
Jason Felch ('Stolen-artifacts case has cost much, yielded little, critics say', Los Angeles Times May 18, 2013) has written an article about the situation five years on. The case has languished in the U.S. attorney's office, and the money spent on the initial investigations and setting up the raids, has been squandered. Several people allegedly involved in the case, Bowers curator Armand Labbé, antiquities dealer Joel Malter and pottery expert Roxanna Brown, died during the 11-year investigation (the latter, shockingly, while in Federal custody). Even now, no museum officials or collectors have been indicted and the case against them and the alleged smugglers remains in limbo. There has been one development though:
Days before the statute of limitations on criminal charges was 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. If convicted, they could each face up to five years in prison. Two peripheral players in the alleged scheme pleaded guilty to similar charges last year.
Olson was arraigned in April and pleaded not guilty, Pettibone remains in Thailand and is not expected to face extradition. The criminal case against Olson and Pettibone is set to go to trial in June. Olsen was a dealer in antiquities which he would sell to clients. In Olsen's warehouse, investigators found many artefacts including those coming from tomb-robbing, most tellingly "ancient bronze bracelets still attached to human arm bones". According to federal authorities, between 2004 and 2008, Olsen several times "offered an undercover agent with the National Park Service illegally imported ancient swords, jewelry, bells and ceramic vessels ranging in value from $800 to $20,000". Olsen was unrepentant about his activities: 
In a 2008 interview with The Times, Olson said he had been dealing in recently excavated Thai antiquities since the 1970s, at times receiving three or four shipping containers a year. He said he knew exporting the objects was against Thai law but he thought it was legal to sell them once they were in the United States. "The people I got it from weren't doing the digging, they were buying from the diggers," he said. 
[Oh, so that makes it OK, does it?]. It is alleged that Pettibone was the source of at least some of the objects traded by Olsen. The indictment alleges that in 2006, Olson told an undercover agent with the National Park Service investigating the case that  he had purchased $300,000 worth of items from Pettibone over the last eight years:
According to the indictment, Pettibone traveled across Thailand and Cambodia buying objects from local looters. Many of the objects came from Ban Chiang, a UNESCO world heritage site in northern Thailand, just south of the border with Laos [...] one of the most important archaeological sites in the region. Pettibone would offer the looted objects to Olson by sending photos of them by email, the indictment alleges. Once Olson had agreed to buy something, Pettibone allegedly bribed Thai customs officers to look the other way and at times labeled the objects with "Made in Thailand" stickers to make them look like modern handicrafts. Olson received the shipments and took them to storage areas in Anaheim and Cerritos before selling them to customers in the United States and elsewhere.
The main interest of the US authorities in this case was always (pace Tompa) that some of his customers were taking their purchases to appraisers who were assigning them an inflated value, and with that in hand they then went along to one of these museums and donated the object. By US law, such donations entitle them to a healthy tax kick-back, dependent on the value. By getting inflated valuations, the handling of stolen and smuggled artefacts became quite profitable for these "investors". The affidavits allege that some museum officials knew about the source of the donations and accepted them anyway. Reportedly the directors and curators of several of the museums investigated had all visited Olson's warehouse.

It is also alleged that Olson may have sold on some of the items in his stock to other dealers, such as  Los Angeles art dealer Cari Markell (whose clients also donated many of the objects to local museums). Another client is alleged to have been Barry MacLean (a wealthy Chicago collector and trustee of the Art Institute). "MacLean's storage unit and personal museum and the Markells' house and gallery were among the sites raided in 2008, but none of these people has been charged with a crime". This however might serve as a warning to other collectors, that the items in their collection may be subject to scrutiny should one of the dealers they have been patronising come under investigation.

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