For 15 years, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has been trying to draw attention to itself and prove that a modest Orange County institution can compete in the major leagues of the exhibition world.
Some of the big names of world culture have found their way into its galleries, including fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls and an array of ancient Egyptian mummies that have helped draw 150,000 paying visitors over the last 12 months.
But it was the blue-clad federal agents knocking on the gates with a warrant Thursday that drew national attention to the Bowers. In an affidavit the agents filed to search the museum, they outlined an illegal scheme by which its senior curator, who died three years ago, allegedly acquired global cultural artifacts that he knew had been smuggled.
Allegations involving the same alleged smuggler and an L.A. gallery owner are being investigated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Asia Pacific Museum and Mingei International Museum in San Diego.
As investigators continued their inquiry at the Bowers on Friday, its top officials, President Peter C. Keller and board Chairman Donald P. Kennedy, both said that they were miffed by the allegations but that the Bowers was cooperating fully. On the phone from his office, Keller said that as soon as he had finished with the government agents waiting outside his door, he would write a message for board members and donors, updating them on a situation that, he and Kennedy maintained, was highly ironic given the Bowers’ history and its hoped-for future.
Recent scandals involving looted antiquities repatriated to Italy by L.A.'s J. Paul Getty Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have focused on treasured items that any collection would covet.
If the Bowers has indeed stumbled, it was over objects that are of comparatively little interest to the public: antiquities from Thailand and ladles unearthed from Native American lands in New Mexico. They have scant value to a museum that has virtually lost interest in adding to its collection of about 100,000 artifacts and instead has staked its future on showcasing treasures belonging to other museums.
The Bowers began humbly as a repository for Orange County history after its namesake, developer Charles Bowers, bequeathed his mansion to the city of Santa Ana in 1936. Two curators were hired in the 1970s, and their interests led to exhibitions and acquisitions, most of them donated, of works from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands and Native American artifacts. The museum also acquired a collection of California plein-air paintings.
Closed from 1986 to 1992 while Santa Ana officials and museum board members debated a new direction and then amassed $12 million for an expansion, the Bowers re-emerged with a much bigger facility, a curatorial staff increased from two to three and a new leader in Keller, a geologist specializing in gems who had been an administrator at LACMA.
As the ‘90s progressed, Kennedy said, financial pressures and a desire to make a bigger mark on the Southern California landscape led to the museum’s decision to cut back on curatorial research and self-generated collections and exhibitions.
In 1999, the board resolved to bring in blockbusters that would attract crowds. “It was a business decision, and ‘Let’s put ourselves on the map and be better than Los Angeles,’ ” said Kennedy, chairman emeritus of First American Title.
“We decided to focus on quality and be known for quality,” Keller said.
A series of high-profile exclusives from China helped launch the Bowers toward the bigger sphere it hoped to occupy. Its secret weapon was Taiwan-born Anne Shih, a board member who loves Chinese art and was able to make inroads with museums in Taipei, Shanghai and Beijing. She helped make the Bowers the U.S. point of entry for traveling shows such as “Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors From China’s Imperial Palace” in 2000.
Keller said Shih was the point woman for raising the roughly $2 million needed to underwrite “Terra Cotta Warriors,” the latest in a series of exhibitions sent by London’s British Museum under an agreement with the Bowers. It is scheduled to open in May.
By 2000, as the big exhibitions began to be staged, just one curator was left, Armand Labbe, the department head who had arrived in 1978 and remained until his death from brain cancer in 2005. He also kept on collecting, according to investigators. He didn’t receive much attention from higher-ups in the museum, according to Kennedy.
“He was stubborn, had been there forever and operated alone way before any of us got on board,” the chairman said. “God knows what he was doing. I hope they don’t find anything that’s a problem.”
The affidavit recounts Labbe’s dealings with a federal undercover agent and Robert Olson, an alleged art smuggler. The curator allegedly bought and accepted donations of objects from the ancient Ban Chiang culture of Thailand while professing not to know whether acquiring them was legal. If the U.S. started applying American law to Thai antiquities, Labbe is alleged to have told the agent, “it was going to be a big mess.”
Keller insists that he didn’t know the items may have been looted. Labbe’s acquisitions of Ban Chiang finds were hardly a secret, he noted: The Bowers had a 1985 exhibition, “Ban Chiang: Archeological Treasures of Prehistoric Thailand,” and the catalog by Labbe was widely distributed. In 2002, the curator published a second book on the subject.
Given this exposure of what the Bowers had collected from ancient Thailand, Keller said that if there was any illegality, “I was under the assumption that somebody would have raised a red flag before now. It was an awfully courageous thing for [Labbe] to do if he was doing it with stolen material.”
What remained uncertain Friday is what will happen now that the Bowers has garnered some of the attention it has craved. Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido affirmed his support: The city, which owns the museum, covers about a third of its $6 million in expenses annually.
It’s another matter whether the donors Keller hopes to reassure in coming days will be willing to write checks while there are ethical and legal questions in the air.
“It certainly could frighten people off,” he said. “I hope not.”
Times staff writers Jason Felch and David Reyes contributed to this report.
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The four museums served search warrants Thursday all collect various types of ancient art from Southeast Asia.
The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art
Location: Main Street, Santa Ana
Annual paid attendance: 150,000
Annual operating budget: $6 million
Other facts: The Bowers is Orange County’s largest museum. Its permanent collection of roughly 100,000 objects includes ancient Chinese art, tribal art from around the world, pre-Columbian art from Latin America, Native American artifacts and antiquities from Southeast Asia. It is not known how many of the museum’s objects are under investigation.
Mingei International Museum
Location: Balboa Park, San Diego
Annual paid attendance: About 100,000
Annual operating budget: $2 million (2006)
Other facts: The Mingei’s collection of 17,000 objects from 141 countries focuses on the “art of the people,” with folk art and crafts from all over the world. Twenty-three pieces from Thailand are under investigation.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Location: Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles
Paid attendance: 428,000
Annual operating budget: $46.8 million
Other facts: LACMA is the largest museum in the West, with an encyclopedic collection of 150,000 pieces of art spanning all regions and time periods. About 60 objects are under investigation. Jonathan Markell, a key figure in the probe, has long been involved with the museum.
Pacific Asia Museum
Location: Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena
Annual paid attendance: Not available
Annual operating budget: $1.7 million (2005)
Other facts: Its collection has 14,000 artworks and artifacts from Asia and the Pacific Islands. At least 39 objects are under investigation.
Sources: museum websites, court records
Graphics reporting by Jason Felch