Southland raids changed the way museums do business

Scrutiny of public museums' ownership of looted antiquities came to a head one year ago in Southern California. Just after dawn, dozens of federal agents staged simultaneous raids on four museums. Federal authorities had investigated an alleged illegal tax write-off scheme that involved antiquities donated to museums. No one's been tried or convicted in the matter, and the U.S. Attorney says they're still investigating. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports, the raids did change the way museums across the country conduct business.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Just after sunrise, federal agents descended upon the Mingei Museum in San Diego, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum, and the L.A. County Museum of Art.

Peter Lu (at 2008 raid): 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.

Guzman-Lopez: Internal Revenue Service investigator Peter Lu read from a prepared statement outside the Silk Roads Gallery on La Brea Boulevard as agents hauled away documents and antiquities.

In the affidavit that led to the search, an undercover agent detailed how she bought smuggled Thai antiquities at this gallery accompanied by inflated appraisals. The gallery owners then arranged the items' donation to the museums in order to claim the value as a tax deduction.

L.A. County Museum Art Director Michael Govan held a press conference several hours after the raids.

Michael Govan (in 2008): We are fully cooperating with the entire resources of our staff to investigate this possibility.

Guzman-Lopez: The affidavit details how officials at the Bowers Museum and the Pacific Asia Museum turned a blind eye to donated items likely smuggled out of northeastern Thailand. Joan Marshall is the director of the Pacific Asia Museum.

Joan Marshall: I can't forget that. It caught us all by surprise.

Guzman-Lopez: Marshall said the museum did nothing wrong. She added that the raids pushed the museum staff and trustees to participate in a more formal review of donated items. The 100 Thai antiquities "seized on site" remain at the museum, Marshall said.

Marshall: I guess I'm a little surprised that nothing has happened, but I don't know, you know, the extent of the investigation, what they're looking into. But I would hope it would be resolved sooner rather than later, just so we can have some closure.

Guzman-Lopez: At an arts reception several months ago, LACMA's Michael Govan echoed Marshall's sentiment.

Govan: The government is very meticulous. As you know, we have been very cooperative. Gave every piece of information. We obviously followed every procedure we knew, so we're not frustrated just in the length of time that it hangs over us, but in the sense we know we did the right thing and we're cooperating fully. And we understand it takes a long time for the government to sort through these things.

Guzman-Lopez: The U.S. Attorney's office will only say that the investigation continues.

The federal affidavit details how Silk Roads Gallery served as the staging area for the looted antiquities. Reached at their Los Angeles home, the gallery's owners, Jonathan and Cari Markell, said a lawyer had advised them not to comment.

The investigation led to one arrest. Almost four months after the raids, the U.S. Attorney charged Thai antiquities expert Roxanna Brown with wire fraud. She'd helped the government investigation, but evidence from the raids suggested that Brown had provided the signatures for inflated appraisals. Four days after her arrest in Seattle, Brown died in custody from a perforated ulcer. One museum director believes her death slowed the government's case.

In the following months, arts journalist Lee Rosenbaum said, a national museum directors' group moved quickly to overhaul antiquities policies.

Lee Rosenbaum: I think it did send a message that even more due diligence is required, and hopefully also sent a message to those trying to perpetrate these scams.

Guzman-Lopez: A few months before the raids, L.A.'s Getty Museum had resolved accusations that it owned looted European artifacts. The controversy surrounding antiquities has led some public museums to stop buying ancient artifacts.

Lawyer Manny Abascal spoke for the Bowers Museum, the institution undercover agents said accepted questionable items. Abascal said administrators stand behind the museum's holdings.

Manny Abascal: The Bowers focus in recent years has been on, really, 20th century art, from the oceanic peoples, and some textiles and other objects from China.

Guzman-Lopez: Administrators at the Pacific Asia Museum say they've also turned their focus to 20th century artifacts, like Japanese textiles.

Observers say public museums must continue to display antiquities because they enrich visitors' understanding of ancient cultures. To maintain that educational role, said Professor Derek Fincham of Loyola Law School in New Orleans, museums will have to change the way they operate.

Derek Fincham: I think they're going to have to try and lease, borrow objects, and have a more collaborative relationship with nations of origin, rather than dealing with shady middlemen, people who may be violating the laws of the nations of origin – international law, but also federal law and American law.

Guzman-Lopez: Last year's raids coincided with L.A.'s rising profile as a national art market. The incident reminded collectors, curators, and dealers that shady middlemen come with the landscape... and that art professionals have to handle transactions with care.