A rare prison sentence for an antiquities dealer

Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday as part of a five-year inquiry into smuggled relics. Credit Nick Ut/Associated Press
Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday as part of a five-year inquiry into smuggled relics. Credit Nick Ut/Associated Press

In 2008 a massive federal investigation unfolded in a coordinated series of searches that produced dramatic images of federal agents standing outside prominent Southern California Museums. As Jason Felch points out:

The investigation sent shockwaves through the art world, suggesting that even amid an international scandal over the Getty Museum’s role in looting, other local museums had continued to do business with the black market. Some critics later called the raids over-zealous, noting that despite that the massive investigation, the government had failed to win jail time in the long-delayed criminal trials that followed.

The museums which were targets of the search included the Los Angles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum, and the Mingei Museum in San Diego. One of the antiquities dealers responsible for facilitating moving material from Southeast Asia to the United States was Jonathan Markell. This week he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. An extremely rare occurrence. Markell and his wife Cari were both sentenced this week. They were ordered to return hundreds of objects seized from their gallery, and were ordered to pay the shipping  costs and tax penalties. So at long last a successful prosecution in these raids, which at the time in 2008 seemed destined to produce a number of prosecutions and fundamental changes.

Rick St. Hilaire this week heaped praise on the prosecutors and investigators:

In the annals of cultural property law, prosecutions targeting transnational antiquities trafficking networks are rare. Even more rare are felony convictions. Scarcer too are prison sentences. . . . So what happened this week to a pair of California gallery owners tied in with the “Museum Raids” cases is a momentous achievement, an example of careful and intelligent case development by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, resulting in felony convictions for antiquities traffickers rather than a “seize and send” photo-op that cultural property watchers are accustomed to witnessing.

Whatever you think of the antiquities trade will probably dictate whether you agree with St. Hilaire or not. But this is one of the exceedingly rare prosecutions of an actor in a transnational antiquities network.

  1. Jason Felch, Beverly Hills antiquities dealer sentenced to jail for smuggling scheme, The Art Newspaper, 12–16, 2015, http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/beverly-hills-antiquities-dealer-sentenced-to-jail-for-smuggling-scheme/ .

 

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