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Helping illuminate art's dark side

Her career revived, a scholar turns expert and tipster in a smuggling probe.

September 12, 2008|Jason Felch | Times Staff Writer

Roxanna Brown never saw the car that hit her.

The 36-year-old expert in Southeast Asian art was pulling her motorcycle out of a parking lot in Bangkok when the vehicle knocked her onto a busy road.

There she was repeatedly crushed under the wheels of a multi-ton rice truck. Then the truck driver backed up, apparently intending to roll over her again.

He was trying to avoid a lawsuit by finishing her off, she would later tell friends, but passersby pulled her out of the way.

The 1982 accident was the latest turn in an exotic life tinged by hardship. Brown had gone from Illinois farm girl to Vietnam War correspondent to leading authority on ancient ceramics. But her promising career had been sidetracked by an addiction to opium. While recovering in a Buddhist monastery, she'd fallen in love with a young Thai monk and settled in his poor village near Bangkok with their 1-year-old son.

Now she lay in the road with her legs, pelvis and internal organs crushed, her body burned from being dragged across asphalt.

With no insurance or savings, she was taken to a hospital with minimal sanitation. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, her mother, who had flown in from Illinois, ran daily to a pharmacy. The hospital had no medication.

Brown's right leg was partially amputated. Infections then forced doctors to cut farther and farther up the limb until all that was left was a stump.

Unable to speak, she wrote a note to her mother: "I am willing myself to die."

It would be six months until Brown was well enough to fly to Illinois, three years until she regained her health. For the rest of her life, she suffered terrible pain, migraines and buzzing in her ears, friends said.

"She came out of it literally flat," recalled Brown's longtime friend and fellow expatriate Patricia Cheeseman, who had met Brown in Laos in the 1970s. "She retained that flatness for years, and was covered in scars."

Brown returned to Thailand with her son, only to have her husband leave her.

"He wasn't able to tolerate looking at her with one leg," said Brown's cousin Karen Lindner, who visited several times. "It's a shameful thing there."

Brown moved to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. As a disabled single mother, she found daily life a struggle.

A pioneer in her field, she earned less than $200 a month teaching about ancient ceramics at Chiang Mai University, friends said. In the evenings, she worked at a small bar she had bought for extra income. It was called the Hard Rock Cafe -- though it was not part of the famous franchise, as she had been told when buying it.

She had a poorly fitting prosthetic leg, friends say, and was in and out of the hospital with infections.

Brown spent much of the next decade in pain, depressed and directionless.


Reviving a career

In the mid-1990s, as interest in Asian art surged in the U.S., Brown moved to Los Angeles, determined to revive her academic career.

She got a better-fitting prosthetic leg, a job as a medical transcriptionist to pay the bills and work doing art appraisals on the side.

Friends say Brown had begun to worry about money -- about being able to pay for college for her teenage son, who had stayed in Bangkok with relatives, and about growing older with no assets or savings.

With the encouragement of her longtime friend Robert Brown, a Southeast Asia scholar at UCLA (and no relation), Roxanna enrolled in the university's doctoral program at the age of 53.

Her focus was the Ming Gap, a little-studied period of 300 years when China blocked exports of its ceramics, fueling a boom in production across Southeast Asia. Brown's analysis of ceramics recovered from shipwrecks revolutionized the understanding of trade patterns in the region, colleagues said.

"We all admired her," said Barbara Gaerlan, assistant director of the Center for Southeast Asian studies at UCLA, "an older woman going back to graduate school with this amazing history."

While at UCLA, Brown fell into a like-minded community of Southeast Asia enthusiasts. They would occasionally gather for Buddhist rituals at the house of Jonathan and Cari Markell, owners of Silk Roads Gallery, a high-end home decor store on La Brea Avenue.

Among the guests were local museum officials, including Robert Brown, who became curator of Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000, and David Kamansky, director emeritus of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

Another local Thai enthusiast was Robert Olson, a retired steelworker who had been importing ancient ceramics, bronze jewelry and stone tools since the 1980s. Olson brought in shipping containers filled with antiquities, which he sold from an Anaheim warehouse. He specialized in objects from Ban Chiang, a world heritage site in northeastern Thailand.

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