Bowers Museum to return illicit artefacts after undercover investigation
The Bowers Museum, in Santa Ana, California, will return to Thailand 542 ancient vases, bowls, axes and other artefacts that were allegedly looted from one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia.
The returns are the result of a non-prosecution agreement between the museum and the Los Angeles US Attorney’s office, stemming from federal raids in 2008. After a five-year undercover operation, federal agents seized hundreds of allegedly looted antiquities from the Bowers, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma). The authorities were investigating an alleged smuggling network that funnelled looted Thai, Cambodian and Burmese artefacts into museums, often through tax-deductible donations based on inflated appraisals, court records show.
Several figures in the alleged smuggling network have been indicted, but no museum officials or private collectors. At least three suspects died during the investigation, including the Asian ceramics expert Roxanna Brown, who fell ill in 2008 while in federal custody in Seattle. One of the early targets of the investigation was Armand Labbé, the chief curator at the Bowers Museum for nearly three decades before his death in 2005, court records show. Labbé accepted two donations of illegally imported Thai antiquities from an undercover federal agent posing as a donor, the records allege.
After Labbé died, the agent met Peter Keller, the director of the Bowers, who declined to accept a third donation.
In exchange for the returns to Thailand, government prosecutors agreed not to criminally charge anyone at the Bowers, the museum’s lawyer says.
“The Bowers Museum is pleased to have resolved this matter without any finding that the museum violated any law,” Manuel Abascal says. “The Bowers stopped collecting archaeological items years ago, and has instead focused on bringing important archaeological items from foreign museums to the US for exhibition, such as the Terracotta Warriors.” Abascal says that the museum offered to return the objects years ago. “Since Armand Labbé died, they have been in our basement. We’re more than happy to give them up,” he says. “We never conceded that they were taken in an ill-gotten way.”
Federal agents swoop
The agreement marks the first antiquities to be returned in the long-running case. Early on a January morning in 2008, hundreds of federal agents descended on the southern California museums and seized hard drives, curatorial records and hundreds of antiquities, which were left in storage at the museums under federal custody.
The contested objects—many of which are not of display quality but have cultural and archaeological importance—have remained in limbo while the case has inched through the legal process over the past six years.
Most come from Ban Chiang, a Neolithic settlement and burial site that was continuously occupied from 1500BC to 900BC, making it one of the most important prehistoric settlements found in Southeast Asia. The site was discovered in 1957 and excavations began a decade later.
Ban Chiang was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992, a designation that has not prevented looters from plundering the site and selling the ancient ceramics, bronze bangles and metal axes unearthed there on the international art market.
Thai law has claimed state ownership of all artefacts since 1961, a claim that would be recognised under American law if certain conditions are met.
Allegations against late curator
At the Pacific Asia Museum, 147 objects donated by various people linked to the case remain in storage under “constructive custody” of the federal authorities, a museum official says.
“The museum has not been told to return the articles,” says Susana Smith Bautista, the Pasadena institution’s interim deputy director. “Because [the US authorities] retain ‘constructive custody’ of these works, the objects cannot leave the museum’s premises without written permission.”
Soon after the raids, the Mingei International Museum offered to return 67 objects that had been seized by the federal authorities, says Jerry Coughlan, the museum’s lawyer. “We have heard nothing other than a request that we continue to hold them,” he says. A lawyer for Lacma, which has around 60 objects that were targeted in the raids, declined to comment.
The allegations against the Bowers Museum were described in detailed search-warrant affidavits released at the time of the raids. The court records portray Labbé, the museum’s longtime chief curator, as a willing participant in the alleged smuggling scheme, which orchestrated the donation of looted antiquities in exchange for inflated tax write-offs for donors. Labbé built much of the Ban Chiang collection with donations from clients of alleged smuggler Robert Olson, an antiquities dealer, according to the affidavits.
In a September 2003 meeting described in the affidavits, the undercover agent met Labbé at Olson’s storage locker. The curator pointed out several objects that he wanted to be donated, instructing the agent to pay Olson in cash for the objects and to state that he had owned them for more than a year, which was required to receive a tax write-off of their stated value.
Olson told the agent that he was getting objects directly from Ban Chiang, the affidavits say, and showed Labbé and the agent photos of the sites from which the objects had recently been excavated. On another occasion, Olson is alleged to have boasted that he had more Ban Chiang material than Thailand, saying that a client of his had donated objects worth around $250,000 to the Bowers Museum.
The agent paid Olson $12,000 for the Ban Chiang objects and received an appraisal that put their value at more than $43,000. Labbé accepted that and a second donation from the agent before he died in April 2005.
In September of that year, the agent spoke to Keller, the director of the Bowers, about making a third donation. Keller said that he knew Olson and had been to his warehouse, but refused to accept the donation. Labbé’s girlfriend, an appraiser, told the agent that Keller had personally donated objects to the museum on several occasions, the affidavits say.
Olson was criminally indicted in 2008, along with Jonathan Markell, a Los Angeles-based gallery owner who arranged the donation of Ban Chiang objects to several museums. The indictment, which was only unsealed in January this year, charged the men on one count of conspiracy to import antiquities from Burma and Cambodia and three counts of making false statements on Customs forms.
In July 2003, both men allegedly travelled to Thailand to buy the looted antiquities. The objects were listed on Customs forms at 25% of their actual purchase price, and the objects were falsely described, with an ancient Burmese Buddha listed as a “wooden sitting man”, the indictment alleges.
Markell and his wife, Cari, were indicted in 2010 on federal tax charges relating to their alleged role in writing inflated appraisals of donations of Ban Chiang material to the museums. An lawyer for Jonathan Markell declined to comment, and his wife’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Olson was separately indicted in 2012, along with Marc Pettibone, an American living in Thailand who, the indictment alleges, bought the Ban Chiang antiquities directly from “diggers” and shipped them to Olson by bribing Thai officials. Both were charged with the transportation, possession and importation of stolen antiquities.
Olson could not be reached, and his federal public defender declined to make any comment. Olson has previously said that he bought antiquities in Thailand but did not act illegally. Pettibone, who is being sought by the authorities, could not be reached by the time of going to press.