Last of three parts
Once an aid in a federal probe, antiquities scholar becomes a key target
When a file on Roxanna Brown is found in an alleged smuggler's possession, everything changes. She reportedly admits involvement in the scam and before long is dead in custody.
Roxanna Brown with her brother Fred at Cafe 50 in Santa Monica in early March. She was broke and worried about a federal investigation into allegedly looted Thai antiquities, her brother recalls. (Photo provided by Fred Leo Brown)
On a March visit to the United States from her adopted home in Thailand, antiquities scholar Roxanna Brown met her brother for lunch in Santa Monica.
Roxanna was broke, Fred Brown recalled. She seemed nervous.
For years, she'd chosen to live on a modest salary in a village outside Bangkok, despite her reputation as one of the world's leading experts on Southeast Asian ceramics. Now 61, she said she could no longer afford the $400 a month she'd been sending to support their 90-year-old mother.
She had her suitcase in the back of her car and was uncertain where she would be sleeping that night, but told her brother she would manage, he said.
Weighing heavily on her mind was a federal smuggling investigation that had made front-page news in Thailand and the U.S.
In January, hundreds of agents had launched coordinated raids on four Southern California museums and other places in California and Illinois. According to federal search warrant affidavits filed at the time, they were looking for evidence of an alleged smuggling pipeline carrying looted Thai antiquities into the U.S. Some of those objects were appraised at inflated values and donated to museums for fraudulent tax write-offs, investigators believed.
Several years before, Roxanna Brown had helped the investigators as an expert and tipster. She knew many of the people named in the affidavits.
There was Robert Olson, referred to in the affidavits as "the smuggler," in whose warehouse Brown said she had seen human arm bones strung with ancient bronze bracelets.
There were her friends Jonathan and Cari Markell, Asian art dealers in Los Angeles who were alleged to have been at the center of the tax scheme.
And there were her colleagues at local museums, some of whom allegedly turned a blind eye to donations of looted antiquities, according to federal affidavits.
No one had been charged with a crime, but now investigators were trying to reach Brown again -- this time with questions about inflated appraisals that bore her signature.
She confided to her brother that she had allowed the Markells to use her electronic signature on one appraisal that might have been overvalued. Apparently they had used it on other appraisals, but she insisted it was without her permission, Fred Brown said.
"Fred, I have no money. If I were really doing this, wouldn't I have money?" her brother recalled Roxanna saying. "I don't know why they are bothering me with something so small. If they harass me, they're going to ruin my name, and that's all I have."
Soon after, Brown cut her trip short and flew back to Thailand.
The Roxanna file
As federal investigators sorted through the massive haul of records they had seized in January, they came across an intriguing file among the documents taken from Olson.
It was labeled simply: "Roxanna."
Inside were and typed lists in which Brown offered to sell Olson dozens of Thai vessels and other antiquities, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in July.