Federal agents carried out coordinated raids on four Southern California museums and a Los Angeles art gallery early today, the first public move in a five-year investigation of an alleged smuggling pipeline that authorities say funneled looted Southeast Asian and Native American artifacts into local museums.
Shortly after 7:30 a.m., search warrants were served on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.
The warrants gave agents broad authority to search the museums' galleries, offices, storage areas and computer archives for objects and records related to the primary targets of the investigation: an alleged art smuggler, Robert Olson, and the owner of a Los Angeles Asian art gallery, Jonathan Markell. Markell's Silk Roads Gallery on La Brea Avenue was also raided.
The warrants are based on an undercover investigation by an unnamed agent with the National Park Service, who presented himself as an eager new collector to Olson and Markell. Both men allegedly admitted their illegal activities to the agent and sold him recently looted objects.
The warrants claim the men also introduced the agent to museum officials who, in dozens of secretly tape-recorded meetings, accepted donations of looted art with values inflated to help the sellers obtain tax write-offs.
In the case of the Bowers and the Pacific Asia museums, the warrants clearly suggest that museum officials were aware that the objects were looted and overvalued and accepted them anyway.
LACMA, the Mingei and the UC Berkeley Art Museum all received similar donations from Markell or Olson over several years, the warrants say, but the documents are unclear about the extent to which museum officials knew of alleged theft or tax evasion.
Not much to say right now but "wow."