Federal Agents Raid California Museums

On Jan. 24, 2008, Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Agents also conducted a raid on the Silk Roads Gallery of L.A. Looking for stolen antiquities smuggled out of China, Thailand, Myanmar, and pilfered from Native American sites, dozens of Federal agents blocked entry to the museums, serving warrants to museum officials that authorized searches of museum computer archives and records, as well as offices, storage spaces and galleries.

The raids were part of an ongoing, five-year long, Federal undercover investigation into an alleged smuggling ring that sought to profit from stolen artifacts. The Feds contend that a smuggler supplied the owners of the Silk Roads Gallery with looted antiquities, the gallery owners would then sell the works to clients who knew the objects were stolen - providing the dishonest buyers with exaggerated appraisals of worth. The payback came when the gallery owners arranged to have the purchased artworks donated to museums - with the thieves enjoying the inflated tax deductions made for the “gifts.” Unbeknownst to the gallery owners, a “client” they were selling stolen objects to was an undercover Federal agent.

The New York Times called the raids and the investigation they sprang from, “a startling development”, and the Los Angeles Times reported the raids “suggest that the involvement of art institutions in the purchase of looted objects is far more extensive than recent high-profile scandals have indicated.” The paper also mentioned “the warrants served Thursday show prosecutors have carefully laid a foundation for the possible indictment of museum staffers allegedly complicit in the looting schemes.”

LACMA director Michael Govan, held a news conference after the raids to affirm the museum’s complete cooperation with the Federal authorities. Govan admitted LACMA had “about 60 objects” in its collection that are related to the ongoing investigation, but according to the New York Times, “he also defended the museum’s process for reviewing potential donations.” Seems that process is in need of a slight tune up. It looks like a season of calamity has descended upon Mr. Govan. The Federal investigation, combined with billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad deciding to keep his massive modern art collection instead of bequeathing it to LACMA, is most likely not the “Happy New Year” the museum director was looking forward to.

Meanwhile, the Federal investigation of the smuggling ring has expanded. In a Jan. 29th article titled “Federal probe of stolen art goes national”, Los Angeles Times staff reporters Jason Felch and Mike Boehm wrote that, “the same day federal agents raided four Southern California museums suspected of displaying stolen art, authorities also searched the private museum of Barry MacLean, a trustee of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. The newly revealed allegations have significantly raised the stakes of the ongoing investigation, suggesting that a suspected network of illegal art dealers extended far beyond Southern California and included objects far more valuable than those previously revealed.”

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