January 25, 2008

Raiders of the lost archaeology

Four California Museums Are RaidedFederal agents raided a Los Angeles gallery and four museums in Southern California on Thursday, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as part of a five-year investigation into the smuggling of looted antiquities from Thailand, Myanmar, China and Native American sites.

The other institutions searched were the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and the Silk Roads Gallery in Los Angeles.

At the center of the investigation are the owners of the Silk Roads Gallery, Jonathan Markell and his wife, Cari Markell, and Robert Olson, who is said in the search warrants to have smuggled looted antiquities out of Thailand, Myanmar and China.

In affidavits supporting the warrants, federal agents said the Markells had imported looted antiquities provided by Mr. Olson and then arranged to donate them to museums on behalf of clients who took inflated tax deductions for the gifts.
Olson's alleged crimes:

Raids suggest a deeper network of looted artThe investigation began in 2003, when the undercover agent with the National Park Service posed as a buyer and began purchasing looted art from Olson, according to the warrants. Olson, the warrants say, specializes in Native American and Thai antiquities.

Olson allegedly told the agent he had been importing objects from Ban Chiang since the 1980s and had never received a permit from the Thai government. He said he got objects "as they were being dug up" and knew it was illegal to ship them out of the country, the warrants say.

The smuggled antiquities were affixed with "Made in Thailand" labels, and sometimes painted over, to make them look to U.S. customs officials like modern replicas, Olson allegedly told the agent.

Olson also claimed to have the largest collection of Native American ladles anywhere in the world and admitted that he had dug for artifacts on public land in New Mexico without authorization, the warrants state.
The scope of the problem:

Archaeological artifact looting a 'chronic problem'Looting of archaeological artifacts and fossils from national parks is increasing as the demand for such items rises on the Internet and the world market, U.S. National Park Service officials say.

About 340 looting incidents considered "significant" are reported each year at the 391 national parks, monuments, historic sites and battlefields--probably less than 25 percent of the actual number of violations, said National Park Service ranger Greg Lawler.

"The theft of archaeological and paleontological resources is a chronic problem that we simply have not even been able to get a grasp on," said Mark Gorman, chief ranger at South Dakota's Badlands National Park. "There's just insufficient resources."
Comment:  How typical that we don't care enough to devote the resources needed to preserve our cultural patrimony. Could that be because "we" (meaning the powers that be) see our cultural patrimony as consisting mainly of items such as the Declaration of Independence, the Liberty Bell, and the USS Constitution? I.e., the artifacts of Anglo-American history?

P.S. I visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art occasionally.

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