Just after dawn broke in Southern California, teams of federal agents began serving search warrants on what might seem unlikely targets for criminal investigation: four local art museums.
"One of the agents said this was a raid of some kind, and I told myself, 'Hey, my God, this is the Bowers, one of the most respectable places,' " said a Bowers Museum landscape supervisor, who did not want to give his name.
At the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the visibly upset director, Joan Marshall, arrived and asked agents if they had to stand in front of the museum, where they could easily be seen by passersby.
Before ushering Marshall into the building for a two-hour interview, a special agent assured her that they would not be taking artifacts out of the museum.
"We're cooperating with the investigation, and we're happy to do that," Marshall said later. "This is certainly not something we knew about. We certainly do not support or condone or knowingly accept objects that have been illegally looted or purchased."
So it went, as well, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Mingei International Museum in San Diego's Balboa Park. Guards blocked entrances as perplexed workers stood by and would-be visitors were turned away at the door.
Arriving at LACMA's gates, Director Michael Govan had to ask permission to be let into his own museum. By 8:30 a.m., more than 30 federal agents were on the premises, carrying computer equipment and printers.
As word leaked out that the museums and art collectors were being investigated for allegedly dealing in looted Southeast Asian and Native American antiquities and helping donors engage in tax evasion, many officials hastened to defend their institutions while pledging cooperation.
"I didn't know the antiquities were looted, and I didn't know anything about that [tax] scheme," Peter Keller, president of the Bowers, said in a telephone interview.
Mingei spokeswoman Martha Ehringer said none of the 23 objects in the search warrant were even on display. They were probably in storage at the museum, she said, which has about 17,500 objects from 14 countries.
At a news conference, LACMA's Govan said the museum thoroughly investigates each of the 1,000 art objects it acquires annually to help ensure that they are legitimate.
"It's a very rigorous process," Govan said, adding that the museum's art is posted on the Web for public viewing and review.
On Irving Boulevard in Los Angeles, agents pounded on the front door of a gallery owner, Jonathan Markell, described in search warrants as a central figure in the alleged looting and tax evasion scheme.
Warrants allege that he imported or smuggled in looted objects, then sold them to clients who donated them to museums and claimed inflated tax deductions.
An alarmed neighbor of Markell heard the ruckus and called 911.
Hours later, agents still were going in and out of the house with cardboard boxes and bubble wrap, cataloging documents and objects.
An empty 18-wheel truck sat out front, waiting to be loaded. A separate team was at the couple's art gallery on La Brea Avenue.
Reached on her home phone at 9:20 a.m., Markell's wife, Cari, said: "I have nothing to say right now."
Times staff writers Richard Marosi and Jason Felch contributed to this report.