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Intrigue but no glamour for smuggling case figure

Retiree says he didn't make much on artifacts that are a key part of museum investigations.

January 31, 2008|Jason Felch | Times Staff Writer

White-haired and missing several teeth, a 79-year-old retired steel salesman sat barefoot in a stained undershirt at his modest Cerritos home Wednesday, trying to explain how he had ended up at the center of a major federal smuggling investigation.

It all started when Robert Olson took a trip in the 1970s to Thailand, where he said he picked up an ancient bronze ring and was required to buy it after it broke in his hand.

After learning that collectors and curators back home in Los Angeles were interested in such objects, he made acquiring them his life's work, buying ancient pottery, huge marble sculptures and lacquered Buddhas from Thai middlemen (including, he says, an uncle of the Thai king). He sold them to people who sold them to museums, movie stars and dignitaries.

"I once had a Buddha that weighed 5,000 pounds," Olson boasted. "I got stuff no one else got."

Olson says he never made a lot of money in the trade but enjoyed "turning things around" for a small profit that allowed him to get by. His small apartment, strewn with children's toys, books and unopened mail, does not speak of wealth.

Olson admits that he knew most of the items he was buying had been illegally excavated and that taking them out of Thailand would violate that country's laws. But he emphatically denied being a smuggler.

He said he played no direct role in the shipments and claimed that U.S. customs officials told him repeatedly they were not illegal under American law.

On Jan. 24, however, more than a dozen federal agents appeared at Olson's door at 7:30 a.m. They handed him a detailed search warrant that outlined a five-year undercover operation by "Tom Hoyt," a man Olson believed to be a computer executive and trusted client. Although he has not been charged with a crime, Olson is referred to throughout the warrants as "the smuggler."

The warrants suggest that Olson broke the law by importing goods he knew to be stolen and making false declarations on U.S. customs forms.

That same morning, more than 500 federal agents served similar warrants on 13 locations, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and a private collector's museum in Chicago.

All five of the museums are alleged to have accepted gifts of looted artifacts from donors who in some cases claimed inflated tax write-offs. Many of these objects, according to the warrants, can be traced to Olson.

Sitting alone in his dark living room Wednesday, Olson wondered what would happen next. He said he would fight to retain custody of his 11-year-old daughter, who was taken by authorities from her school Thursday after federal agents found pictures of naked Thai teenagers among Olson's belongings.

Olson, divorced from the girl's Thai mother, said he doesn't know where the girl is.

"They took my daughter away from me," he said, stifling tears amid flashes of anger. "They figured I was molesting her, the bastards."

It appears only a matter of time, Olson said, until he is indicted. With his business shut down, he said, he had to take $10,000 from his daughter's college fund to pay for his legal defense. "I'm broke," he said.

Authorities seized Olson's bank records but would not comment on his finances or any other aspect of his case.

Olson traced his troubles to the mid-'70s, after he quit his job as a salesman in the Los Angeles steel business, where he'd worked for 23 1/2 years "without missing a day." On a visit to New Mexico, he said, he stumbled upon a new trade -- selling bulk turquoise to Indian jewelry makers across the Southwest. Along the way, Olson began collecting Indian ladles, one of which he had found in a cave.

"That went well until a [guy] in Guadalajara started making fake turquoise and silver and ruined the market," he said.

Once again out of work, Olson said, he was invited to Thailand for a friend's wedding.

By then middle-aged and divorced, he liked the attention he received there from young women. "There were girls all over us," Olson recalled. "You wouldn't believe it."

While browsing in an antique shop, he said, he was shown a bronze ring that broke in his hand. He bought it, along with a few pieces of pottery that he was told were from Ban Chiang, an ancient civilization in northern Thailand.

Back in Los Angeles, Olson decided to sell his collection of 73 Indian ladles, the largest anywhere, he said. The then-curator at the Bowers Museum, Armand Labbe, said he'd be right over, Olson recalled.

Labbe was impressed, Olson said. If Olson donated half the ladles to the Bowers, Labbe said he would find someone to pay him $10,000 for the rest.

Labbe also admired Olson's Thai pottery, Olson said.

"Labbe said, 'If you can get more of this stuff, they'll put on a show at the Bowers with it,' " Olson recalled.

A partnership was born.

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