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FBI Raids L.A. Museums
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FBI Raids L.A. Museums

Arts & Life

FBI Raids L.A. Museums
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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Dozens of federal agents raided four museums here in Southern California yesterday. One of them is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA. The agents were looking for stolen antiquities. The raids capped a five-year undercover investigation that spread from Southern California all the way to Thailand and China.

With me now to explain these events is Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JASON FELCH (Los Angeles Times): Hi. Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, first of all, tell us what happened. What happened yesterday?

Mr. FELCH: Yesterday, museum officials arrived at their place of work and found federal agents waiting for them, who let them in the building and said that they'd like to search their computers and files. They were looking for objects that had been donated in the most part to the museums by two men - one, Robert Olson, and another named Jonathan Markell. Both are alleged to have been involved in smuggling and donating objects to these museums.

BRAND: And tell us more about these two men. One of them, I understand, owns an art gallery here in Los Angeles.

Mr. FELCH: Right, Jonathan Markell and his wife, Cari, the owners of Silk Roads Gallery. And it's a very nice gallery. They sell home furnishings. A lot of it has an Asian or Buddhist theme. And another part of their business, less obvious from the storefront, is that they sell Southeast Asian antiquities, and it's that part of the business, I think, that they're now in trouble for.

BRAND: Well, how did the scheme allegedly work, or what is in the warrants that led the agents from these two men to these four museums?

Mr. FELCH: The warrants lay out allegations that Robert Olson would smuggle Thai antiquities into the United States. He would then sell those to Jonathan Markell. Markell had clients who are collectors and he would sell these objects to his clients, and often for $1,500, but then provide them with falsified appraisals, the warrants claim, which put their value closer to $5,000. These clients would then donate them to their local museums, one of these four museums, and receive a tax write-off for $5,000.

And so it was a win-win-win situation. The museums got free Southeast Asian antiquities, donors got healthy tax write-off, and Markell and Olson would get the fee for the false appraisal and the antiquity itself.

BRAND: Do investigators believe that the museum officials knowingly accepted these stolen antiquities, that they actually knew that what was going on was illegal? Or did the museum officials operate in ignorance and just accept these donations on their face value?

Mr. FELCH: It depends who you ask. Yesterday, spokespeople for all the museums came out and said that they were cooperating fully and that they did not have knowledge of where these objects had come from. The warrant portrays a slightly different picture because the investigation used an undercover officer.

There's some detailed information about meetings between this undercover agent who is posing as a donor and museum officials. Those meetings suggested in several cases museum officials did know where these objects were coming from, that they could be illegal, and you know, made some nominal efforts to obscure that fact, but nevertheless accepted them into their collections. So prosecutors could be building a criminal case against not just the alleged smuggler and gallery owner, but also museum officials.

BRAND: So perhaps this Jonathan Markell and Robert Olson could turn state's witness?

Mr. FELCH: That, I think, is very possible. And I - speaking to legal experts yesterday, they suspect that that may be part of the strategy here.

BRAND: Now, a similar scandal rocked the Getty Museum recently and some other museums on the East Coast. How widespread is this - trading and accepting in stolen antiquities?

Mr. FELCH: You know, we still don't know, but more and more evidence seems to point to the fact that this is, to some extent or another, a widespread practice. The scandals at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Getty Museum here in Los Angeles are different in some ways. They involve claims by foreign governments, not American law enforcement.

But the practices, the actual activities alleged by the curators, are very similar, and disturbingly so to many people who follow the art world, because they know that a lot of the alleged activities in yesterday's affidavits were going on in the midst of major public scandals at the Getty and the Met over their antiquities collecting. And so there is a widespread belief, and statements by the museum community, that these issues have been addressed during those scandals and that these practices no longer happened. Yesterday's affidavit suggests a different story.

BRAND: Jason Felch is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, covering the raids at four area museums by authorities looking for stolen antiquities. Thanks, Jason.

Mr. FELCH: Thank you, Madeleine.

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