For 15 years, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana has been trying to draw attention to itself and prove that a modest Orange County institution can compete in the major leagues of the exhibition world.
Some of the big names of world culture have found their way into its galleries, including fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls and an array of ancient Egyptian mummies that have helped draw 150,000 paying visitors over the last 12 months.
But it was the blue-clad federal agents knocking on the gates with a warrant Thursday that drew national attention to the Bowers. In an affidavit the agents filed to search the museum, they outlined an illegal scheme by which its senior curator, who died three years ago, allegedly acquired global cultural artifacts that he knew had been smuggled.
Allegations involving the same alleged smuggler and an L.A. gallery owner are being investigated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena's Asia Pacific Museum and Mingei International Museum in San Diego.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Museum president: An article in Saturday's A section about the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana said that museum President Peter C. Keller was previously an administrator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 31, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 89 words Type of Material: Correction
Bowers Museum exhibition: An article in Saturday's A section, about the unwanted attention the Bowers Museum has received in an investigation of possible smuggling, reported that the upcoming "Terra Cotta Warriors" exhibition at the museum in Santa Ana will be part of a series provided to the Bowers under an agreement with the British Museum in London. The artifacts are currently on display there and will next be seen at the Bowers, but they were provided by the Chinese government independent of the Bowers' arrangement with the British Museum.
As investigators continued their inquiry at the Bowers on Friday, its top officials, President Peter C. Keller and board Chairman Donald P. Kennedy, both said that they were miffed by the allegations but that the Bowers was cooperating fully. On the phone from his office, Keller said that as soon as he had finished with the government agents waiting outside his door, he would write a message for board members and donors, updating them on a situation that, he and Kennedy maintained, was highly ironic given the Bowers' history and its hoped-for future.
Recent scandals involving looted antiquities repatriated to Italy by L.A.'s J. Paul Getty Museum, New York's Metropolitan Museum and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts have focused on treasured items that any collection would covet.
If the Bowers has indeed stumbled, it was over objects that are of comparatively little interest to the public: antiquities from Thailand and ladles unearthed from Native American lands in New Mexico. They have scant value to a museum that has virtually lost interest in adding to its collection of about 100,000 artifacts and instead has staked its future on showcasing treasures belonging to other museums.
The Bowers began humbly as a repository for Orange County history after its namesake, developer Charles Bowers, bequeathed his mansion to the city of Santa Ana in 1936. Two curators were hired in the 1970s, and their interests led to exhibitions and acquisitions, most of them donated, of works from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands and Native American artifacts. The museum also acquired a collection of California plein-air paintings.
Closed from 1986 to 1992 while Santa Ana officials and museum board members debated a new direction and then amassed $12 million for an expansion, the Bowers re-emerged with a much bigger facility, a curatorial staff increased from two to three and a new leader in Keller, a geologist specializing in gems who had been an administrator at LACMA.
As the '90s progressed, Kennedy said, financial pressures and a desire to make a bigger mark on the Southern California landscape led to the museum's decision to cut back on curatorial research and self-generated collections and exhibitions.
In 1999, the board resolved to bring in blockbusters that would attract crowds. "It was a business decision, and 'Let's put ourselves on the map and be better than Los Angeles,' " said Kennedy, chairman emeritus of First American Title.
"We decided to focus on quality and be known for quality," Keller said.
A series of high-profile exclusives from China helped launch the Bowers toward the bigger sphere it hoped to occupy. Its secret weapon was Taiwan-born Anne Shih, a board member who loves Chinese art and was able to make inroads with museums in Taipei, Shanghai and Beijing. She helped make the Bowers the U.S. point of entry for traveling shows such as "Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors From China's Imperial Palace" in 2000.
Keller said Shih was the point woman for raising the roughly $2 million needed to underwrite "Terra Cotta Warriors," the latest in a series of exhibitions sent by London's British Museum under an agreement with the Bowers. It is scheduled to open in May.
By 2000, as the big exhibitions began to be staged, just one curator was left, Armand Labbe, the department head who had arrived in 1978 and remained until his death from brain cancer in 2005. He also kept on collecting, according to investigators. He didn't receive much attention from higher-ups in the museum, according to Kennedy.
"He was stubborn, had been there forever and operated alone way before any of us got on board," the chairman said. "God knows what he was doing. I hope they don't find anything that's a problem."