Jason Felch Updates the Southland Antiquities Investigation

In Sunday’s LA Times, Jason Felch reports on a languishing federal antiquities investigation. In 2008 there was a loud showy raid on five museums in Southern California, including: the Bowers Museum, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei Museum, and the LA County Museum of Art. We are now five years since those raids, which resulted in the seizure of 10,000 objects, but has not resulted in any objects being returned, or even in any prosecutions. At least not yet. Which is strange, because if agents display such force in searching and seizing material in a simultaneous early morning raid, surely that investigation should bear fruit.

One reason for that is the death of those under investigation. Some of those are the result of natural causes. But not the sad death of Roxanna Brown—a witness for investigators and later a target—who died while in federal custody, in a shameful display of federal mismanagement. Here is a full history of Brown:

Roxanna Brown’s story: Part IPart IIPart III and settlement.

Many who follow this investigation probably echo Prof. Stephen Urice, professor at the University of Miami Law School, who is quoted:

I’m baffled . . . 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.

 Felch reports that a criminal case against two men will begin in June: Robert Olson, aged 84; and Marc Pettibone, 62. Prosecutors allege that both men conspired to bribe officials in Thailand to secure export, and that the objects were then sold in the United States. And they would then use inflated appraisals for the objects and would secure excessive tax deductions for their donation.

All in all a troubling story on many levels. Few would dispute the staggering amount of objects which are being removed from Southeast Asia. But the prosecution and this investigation may be even more troubling. Its been a long investigation, with some very bad outcomes. The tragic death of targets of federal investigation is a growing trend in antiquities prosecutions. Think also of the three suicides which took place after the display of federal force in the four-corners antiquities investigation.

We can’t of course blame federal investigators and prosecutors entirely, but they do share blame here, and if as many argue we are using these prosecutions to deter future smuggling, looting, and tax fraud, well the deterrent impact is very much in doubt. Criminologists can articulate this better than I, but a well-established truth that irregular regulation, even one which results in custodial sentences, cannot effectively deter. And when there is such a pall of controversy over these federal investigations, it may actually ossify the attitudes of individuals in the trade that they are being unfairly and unjustly targeted.

  1. Jason Felch, Stolen-artifacts case has cost much, yielded little, critics say, Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2013.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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