Stewarding the Watts Towers

I remember driving through LA for the first time five years ago, seeing these towers from the distance, and wondering what kind of crazy accident created those. I only learned later they were the work of one man, building on his own. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is nearing an agreement to oversee the restoration and preservation of the Watts Towers:

Director of Lacma’s conservation department, Mark Gilberg, aims to take a more holistic approach to conservation efforts, which up until now have been short-term. “We are rethinking procedures and adopting ones that will be more proactive than reactive,” says Gilberg. Initial delays regarding insurance concerns have been resolved with the promise that Lacma will not be financially responsible for any gross negligence while working on the towers.

The decision to recruit the museum comes amidst a major budget shakedown across the state, which has resulted in slashed funding to nearly every sector. The state-owned Watts Towers “are in a situation where they are fighting a battle all the time,” explains Lacma spokeswoman, Barbara Pflaumer. Last year, before Los Angeles’s municipal budget was cut, the offer for Lacma’s conservation expertise was $300,000. Olga Garay, the head of the city’s department of cultural affairs, has reportedly put the total restoration costs at $5m.

 I’ve probably linked to it before, but after the jump you can see a 1957 documentary showing Simon Rodia at work:

  1. Marisa Mazria Katz, Lacma nears deal on Watts Towers project The Art Newspaper, (last visited Jan 4, 2011).

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More on the California Searches

“I have rarely seen Federal agents come out in such force as they did today”.

That’s what LA Times staff writer Jason Felch remarked yesterday on KCRW. He also has a very nice overview of the investigation so far, with links to the search warrants in today’s edition of the LA Times.

The massive search yesterday of the LA County Museum of Art, along with Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei Museum in San Diego has yet to result in any arrests or indictments. However it seems to be just a matter of time. It goes without saying that when Federal agencies and prosecutors get involved, they seldom lose.

Much of the allegations were established by the undercover work of a National Parks Service employee. Based on the search warrants, it seems the investigation started in response to looting of Native American sites, and quickly expanded.

Robert Olson, who spends a lot of time in southeast Asia is known in the affidavits as “the smuggler”. The other main target appears to be Jonathan Markell, of the Silk Roads Gallery.

This is a powerful image which appeared in the LA Times today, with agents from the IRS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the National Park Service searching prominent California art institutions. Even if this search does not amount to a criminal prosecution, it sends a powerful message to the antiquities trade, including museums that purchase these objects, that federal agents are watching, and the trade needs to quickly and efficiently change the way it does business.

I think we can take a few things away from this investigation. First, the alleged objects were of limited value. These aren’t comparable to the Euphronios Krater for example. They are smaller objects, but were bought and sold in greater quantities. Objects were allegedly illegally excavated from Thailand (most from the Ban Chiang site), China, Myanmar and Native American sites in the US.

Second, I think this is compelling evidence of a systemic problem with the antiquities trade. Many have discussed these problems before. The lack of provenance, and the ease with which smugglers can elude customs agents makes policing the trade difficult. However, it would seem now that those who would buy and sell objects can no longer afford to cut corners, and must now conduct far more detailed investigations into how objects came to market.

Finally, I think this investigation reminds us that Roman and Greek objects are not the only classes of antiquities that are smuggled, despite the attention the recent returns from US institutions have indicated. Clearly, the question now is how many indictments or convictions will ensue, and how will the individual art institutions and the relevant industry codes of practice evolve to prevent this kind of criminal activity in the future.

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