An international investigation that followed the trail of stolen antiquities from ancient tombs in Turkey to a storefront gallery on Ventura Boulevard resulted in a guilty plea last month from a veteran art dealer.
It was not, however, as if the feds had nabbed the chief buyer at Sotheby's.
Even though the 133 seized antiquities included lamps, coins and bottles from as far back as the 9th century BC, customs agents said the whole lot was worth between $4,000 and $5,000.
In a brief conversation from his home in Camarillo, the convicted art dealer, Joel Malter, took fierce exception to the total.
"That's baloney, baloney!" said Malter, 68.
They were worth far more?
"No, much less!"
At Malter Galleries, nestled between a beauty salon and a realty office, hundreds of items both large and small are on display. Included are wooden bowls labeled as Mayan, large blocks of marble mosaics said to come from ancient Rome, African masks and a variety of small items such as figurines, glass vials and snuff boxes.
Most don't have price tags, but at Malter auctions, items are often sold for less than $100--sometimes much less. Malter once let a group of 15 items described as pre-Columbian go for a total of $15.
On the EBay Internet auction site, a recent search pinpointed 18 items from Malter Galleries. Among them was a small Egyptian carving said to be from about 600 BC. Two days after it appeared on the site, the top bid was $1.25.
The gallery does carry some pricier items. The antiquities list for an upcoming local auction includes a life-sized bronze Buddha with a gallery-estimated value of $30,000. And Malter has had at least one big-name client: Bruce McNall, former owner of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, built up a considerable ancient coin collection with Malter's help before his sports empire crumbled and he was convicted on bank fraud charges.
Although the value of the Turkish items was relatively small, archeologists and government officials say it's important to stop dealers from trading in stolen or smuggled antiquities, no matter the value.
"Maybe these [seized] items are worth a few thousand dollars; that's nothing in the art world," said archeologist Ricardo Elia, editor of the Journal of Field Archeology and associate professor at Boston University, where he has overseen research on stolen and smuggled artifacts.
"But the scientific loss is priceless. All over the world--Greece, Turkey, Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia--thousands of valuable archeological sites are being literally ripped apart so that artifacts can be dug out and smuggled," he said. "The looting of some sites is so bad, they end up looking like lunar landscapes."
Malter, who has been dealing in antiquities since the 1960s, said he could not speak in detail about his business or his case until sentenced. His lawyer, John Coyle III of Oklahoma City, where the investigation began, did not return a call from The Times.
The smuggling case was kicked off by a 1997 tip from a Midwest collector, according to U.S. Customs Agent William Wallrapp. The collector told authorities he had been approached by a Turkish man offering to sell a lot of 133 antiquities.
Wallrapp, based in Oklahoma City, went undercover to play the role of an antiquities dealer. He flew to Turkey for a series of secretly taped meetings at a hotel with the Turkish dealer.
"He told me he hires people to go to tombs and other sites on a regular basis to loot whatever they can find," Wallrapp said.
In the course of the investigation, Wallrapp determined the dealer had previously moved illicitly acquired items through Malter. Initially, the 133-item lot had been shipped to Malter, but the two men had a falling out over how to move the items onto the open market and the Turkish dealer reclaimed the consignment.
Wallrapp said he agreed to pay $8,000 for the items and made an additional deal for a group of coins. As soon as the deal was made, Turkish police rushed in to arrest the dealer. Four alleged accomplices were also arrested, including a reserve U.S. Air Force major stationed at a Turkish base.
Wallrapp said he rushed back to the U.S. to contact Malter before news of the arrests spread. Still undercover, the agent arrived at the Encino gallery on June 19, 1998, and sold Malter the items, according to court papers.
"I made it clear that they had been stolen and smuggled," Wallrapp said. "I said I was very afraid of having them, and wanted to get rid of them."
Malter offered $400, Wallrapp said, and the deal was made.
The gallery owner was not arrested, but a grand jury was convened. After several months of testimony, Malter pleaded guilty to charges for which he could be sentenced to a maximum five years in jail and incur a fine of $250,000.
As part of the plea agreement, federal prosecutors recommended that any incarceration time be spent in home confinement and that the fine not exceed $5,000. The ultimate sentencing decision will be made by a federal judge, but in most cases the recommendations are accepted. A sentencing date has not been set.