Stolen-artifacts case has cost much, yielded little, critics say
When hundreds of federal agents raided four Southern California museums early one January morning in 2008, it set the art world ablaze, suggesting that even amid an international looting scandal, museums had continued to do business with the black market in stolen antiquities.
Acting on evidence gathered during a five-year undercover probe, investigators seized more than 10,000 artifacts at the museums and more than half a dozen other locations in California and Illinois. The objects had allegedly been illegally excavated from sites across Southeast Asia, smuggled into Los Angeles and donated to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Mingei Museum in San Diego and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, according to search warrant affidavits.
But in the years since the high-profile raids, no museum officials or collectors have been indicted, and none of the seized objects have been returned to the countries from which they were allegedly stolen.
Days before the statute of limitations on criminal charges was about to expire in January, a federal grand jury indicted two men in the case. Robert Olson, an 84-year-old Van Nuys man, and Marc Pettibone, a 62-year-old American living in Thailand, are both accused of one count of conspiracy and one of trafficking in stolen goods. If convicted, they could each face up to five years in prison. Two peripheral players in the alleged scheme pleaded guilty to similar charges last year.
Several people targeted by prosecutors — including Bowers curator Armand Labbé and antiquities dealer Joel Malter — died during the 11-year investigation. A third target, UCLA-trained pottery expert Roxanna Brown, was indicted in 2008 and died from health complications while in federal custody, leading the federal government to settle a lawsuit brought by her family for $880,000.
“I’m baffled,” said Stephen Urice, a professor at the University of Miami law school who has written critically of the raids. “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.”
In recent interviews, several people with direct knowledge of the investigation expressed anger and frustration, saying the case had languished in the U.S. attorney’s office. They described Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Johns, who has directed the case since its inception, as overzealous, eager to send federal agents into museums to gather evidence but too distracted or overwhelmed with other cases to bring timely criminal charges.
As a result, they say, the case has wasted millions of dollars and inadvertently encouraged the very black market it targeted by suggesting the government is weak on enforcement. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment and feared imperiling the criminal case against Olson and Pettibone, which is set to go to trial in June.
Johns acknowledged setbacks in the case but defended the results. “If your measure of success is notches on the barrister’s bar, it may be an inaccurate measure of the sea change resulting from this investigation,” he said. He cited stricter acquisition policies adopted by American museums in the years since the raids.
Aspects of the case remain under investigation, Johns said, and museums may still return some of the objects seized during the investigation. “The Bowers has for years been willing to provide its collection of Ban Chiang antiquities to Thailand for further preservation and study and otherwise to assist Thailand in the preservation and promotion of their important archaeological resources,” the museum said in a statement to The Times.
Officials at the Pacific Asia Museum, the Mingei Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art would not comment on the investigation. Olson, who lives in an assisted-living facility in Van Nuys, did not respond to a request for comment. Pettibone remains in Thailand and did not return an emailed request for comment or a message left with his parents in Santa Cruz.
According to the indictment, Pettibone traveled across Thailand and Cambodia buying objects from local looters. Many of the objects came from Ban Chiang, a UNESCO world heritage site in northern Thailand, just south of the border with Laos. It was populated continuously over 2,000 years, making it one of the most important archaeological sites in the region.
Pettibone would offer the looted objects to Olson by sending photos of them by email, the indictment alleges. Once Olson had agreed to buy something, Pettibone allegedly bribed Thai customs officers to look the other way and at times labeled the objects with “Made in Thailand” stickers to make them look like modern handicrafts.
Olson received the shipments and took them to storage areas in Anaheim and Cerritos before selling them to customers in the United States and elsewhere. Several of Olson’s customers allegedly obtained inflated appraisals for the objects and donated them to museums for excessive tax write-offs.
The affidavits allege that some museum officials knew about the source of the donations and accepted them anyway, even as the J. Paul Getty Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum and others were making headlines for returning dozens of looted objects. Bowers director Peter Keller, Pacific Asia director David Kamansky and LACMA curator Robert Brown had all visited Olson’s warehouse, where investigators later found ancient bronze bracelets still attached to human arm bones.
In a 2008 interview with The Times, Olson said he had been dealing in recently excavated Thai antiquities since the 1970s, at times receiving three or four shipping containers a year. He said he knew exporting the objects was against Thai law but he thought it was legal to sell them once they were in the United States.
“The people I got it from weren’t doing the digging, they were buying from the diggers,” he said.
Among Olson’s biggest clients were Barry MacLean, a wealthy Chicago collector and trustee of the Art Institute, and Jonathan and Cari Markell, Los Angeles art dealers whose clients donated many of the objects to local museums. MacLean’s storage unit and personal museum and the Markells’ house and gallery were among the sites raided in 2008, but none of these people has been charged with a crime. They would not comment on the case.
The indictment cites several times between 2004 and 2008 that Olson offered an undercover agent with the National Park Service illegally imported ancient swords, jewelry, bells and ceramic vessels ranging in value from $800 to $20,000. In 2006, Olson told the agent he had purchased $300,000 worth of items from Pettibone over the last eight years, the indictment alleges.
Many of the antiquities involved in the alleged scheme are of minor value as art but would be valuable to archaeologists had they been excavated in a way that documented their burial context, which is key to understanding the culture that created them.
Olson was arraigned in April and pleaded not guilty. Pettibone remains in Thailand and is not expected to face extradition. The government has indicated it will seek to return objects allegedly trafficked by Olson and Pettibone to the countries from which they were taken.
Despite the setbacks, a conviction would be an important milestone, said Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural property law at DePaul University College of Law. “Without prosecution you really don’t have a deterrent.”
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.