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A passion for art, a perilous pursuit

Scholar's quest leads through war, addiction and hardship to arrest.

September 11, 2008|Jason Felch | Times Staff Writer

'I'm being arrested."

Roxanna Brown, a renowned expert in Southeast Asian ceramics, was whispering into the hotel telephone.

Downstairs in the lobby, her host, University of Washington professor Bill Lavely, didn't know what to do. He had flown Brown, a 62-year-old museum director, in from Bangkok to give a lecture at an academic conference in Seattle.

Lavely paced the lobby for 10 minutes before going up to Brown's room and knocking tentatively on her door. A few minutes later, she emerged, flanked by four federal agents.

She walked stiffly with a cane, limping because of a prosthetic right leg. She looked haggard and frail, Lavely thought. She'd obviously been crying.

"I wish I could explain," Brown stammered as she was led to the elevator that afternoon in May. "It's about that thing in Los Angeles. I made a mistake. . . . I faxed my signature."

Recalling the episode two months later, Lavely said he'd had no idea what she was talking about. As Brown was ushered into the elevator, he asked if there was anything he could do.

"I guess not," Brown replied. "Well, maybe there is. . . ."

Before she could finish, the elevator doors closed.

It was the last time any of Brown's colleagues would see her alive.


Art world stunned

The arrest of Roxanna Brown, and her subsequent death in prison, shocked the world of ancient art, where she had come to be seen as one of the world's foremost authorities on Thai ceramics.

To those who knew her, it made no sense that she should be accused, much less jailed, in an international smuggling investigation that had led to raids of respected museums in Southern California and beyond. Her life had been dedicated to studying and protecting the treasures of long-gone Southeast Asian cultures.

Even as a young girl growing up on a chicken farm in Illinois, she once told her older brother Fred, "I feel like I must have lived in Asia in another lifetime."

At Columbia University, she studied journalism but was fascinated by a class in Asian art. Virtually nothing was known about Southeast Asian ceramics. Brown thought her degree might help get her overseas to look at kiln sites.

After graduating in 1968, Brown rode her motorcycle from New York to Chicago, then hitched rides with motorcycle gangs to California. There she boarded a plane for Australia, bound for Southeast Asia, determined to follow her childhood intuition.

By December, the 22-year-old Brown was freelancing in Vietnam, one of the youngest credentialed reporters of the war. It was her first visit to Asia, but she felt as though she were home.

Most other journalists lived in Saigon apartments. Brown moved in with a Vietnamese family in a humble neighborhood. They taught her the language and local customs, and she contributed money when she could. It became a lifelong friendship.

Attractive and extremely bright, Brown fell in with a group of journalists now famous for covering the war. She briefly dated Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly, was friends with actor-photojournalist Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and hung out with correspondents Peter Arnett and David Halberstam, her brother said.

"I reestablished my love for motorcycling after borrowing her 100-cc bike," said Ted Koppel in a recent interview.

In March 1969, when the U.S. began a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, Brown was part of the gaggle of young freelancers who hung around the Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh in the evenings, looking for work, recalled Koppel, then a 29-year-old war correspondent for ABC News.

But from the start, covering the war was a way for Brown to fund her true passion: sifting through pottery shards at the ancient kiln sites that dotted the Vietnamese countryside. She'd work a few days to file a story, then hop on her motorcycle and drive across the war-torn region looking for remnants of its ancient ceramics trade.

"She had a lot more guts than I did," Kennerly said.

When the North Vietnamese army rolled across the demilitarized zone during an offensive in April 1972, the residents of Hue fled south carrying their children in their arms and their belongings on bamboo poles. South Vietnamese military trucks in full retreat clogged the main highway.

Weaving northward through the chaos on her motorbike was a beautiful 26-year-old American woman in fatigues and a floppy hat, recalled former Time magazine correspondent David DeVoss.

DeVoss flagged Brown down. Did she know she was headed for danger?

"I'm going to the Citadel," Brown said with cool determination, referring to the ancient imperial palace in Hue. "I need to retrieve some historical records and artifacts there before they're lost."

DeVoss, expecting some reckless war junkie, was stunned by Brown's poise. "She was calm and had a clear purpose, and around her everything was just falling apart," he recalled in a recent interview.

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