Arts & Entertainment

Federal Officials Raid Four Southland Museums in Looting Investigation

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Federal agents, armed with warrants,searched the offices of four well-known Southern California museums on Thursday. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says the raids are part of a multi-year investigation into illegally looted art in the collections of public museums

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: The Silk Roads Gallery is on the 100 block of North La Brea Avenue. The doors are locked and inside, federal agents are carting away artifacts that they allege were looted and smuggled out of Southeast Asia by the owners of this gallery.

Peter Lu: IRS criminal investigation in conjunction with other federal law enforcement agency, including ICE, National Park Service, is present at the location executing a federal search warrant.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: That's IRS investigator Peter Lu. Fellow investigators also searched the offices of the nearby L.A. County Museum of Art.

Michael Govan: We're fully cooperating with the investigation so that we can find out with federal authorities what happened, and we're going to be cooperative throughout.

Guzman-Lopez: LACMA director, Michael Govan, said the owners of Silk Roads Gallery, Cari and Jonathan Markell, donated about 60 Asian antiquities to his institution in the last decade. A federal affidavit says the Markells smuggled the items out of Asia. The two then counted them as deductions on their tax returns. Many items were valued at less than $10,000.

Undercover federal agents used wiretapping to document the Markell's alleged involvement in a similar scheme with Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum and San Diego's Mingei Museum. An associate of the Markells, investigators say, sold looted Native American and Asian art to an undercover agent who then donated the work to Santa Ana's Bowers Museum. At LACMA, Director Govan says, there's a vetting process for the 1,000 or so donated items it receives each year.

Govan: Curators in particular research objects thoroughly. As to their history and their origins. We ask donors to make representations of those objects so we're sure as well what they know, or what they tell us they know.

Guzman-Lopez: Nobody's saying where the Markells might be. The U.S. Attorney's office hasn't filed charges or made arrests. One official said it could take more than a week to comb through the seized items.