YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A stunning reversal of fortune

Once an aid in a smuggling probe, a respected ceramics expert is arrested as a suspect.

September 13, 2008|Jason Felch | Times Staff Writer

On a March visit to the United States from her adopted home in Thailand, antiquities scholar Roxanna Brown met her brother for lunch in Santa Monica.

Roxanna was broke, Fred Brown recalled. She seemed nervous.

For years, she'd chosen to live on a modest salary in a village outside Bangkok, despite her reputation as one of the world's leading experts on Southeast Asian ceramics. Now 61, she said she could no longer afford the $400 a month she'd been sending to support their 90-year-old mother.

She had her suitcase in the back of her car and was uncertain where she would be sleeping that night, but told her brother she would manage, he said.

Weighing heavily on her mind was a federal smuggling investigation that had made front-page news in Thailand and the U.S.

In January, hundreds of agents had launched coordinated raids on four Southern California museums and other places in California and Illinois. According to federal search warrant affidavits filed at the time, they were looking for evidence of an alleged smuggling pipeline carrying looted Thai antiquities into the U.S. Some of those objects were appraised at inflated values and donated to museums for fraudulent tax write-offs, investigators believed.

Several years before, Roxanna Brown had helped the investigators as an expert and tipster. She knew many of the people named in the affidavits.

There was Robert Olson, referred to in the affidavits as "the smuggler," in whose warehouse Brown said she had seen human arm bones strung with ancient bronze bracelets.

There were her friends Jonathan and Cari Markell, Asian art dealers in Los Angeles who were alleged to have been at the center of the tax scheme.

And there were her colleagues at local museums, some of whom allegedly turned a blind eye to donations of looted antiquities, according to federal affidavits.

No one had been charged with a crime, but now investigators were trying to reach Brown again -- this time with questions about inflated appraisals that bore her signature.

She confided to her brother that she had allowed the Markells to use her electronic signature on one appraisal that might have been overvalued. Apparently they had used it on other appraisals, but she insisted it was without her permission, Fred Brown said.

"Fred, I have no money. If I were really doing this, wouldn't I have money?" her brother recalled Roxanna saying. "I don't know why they are bothering me with something so small. If they harass me, they're going to ruin my name, and that's all I have."

Soon after, Brown cut her trip short and flew back to Thailand.

The Roxanna file

As federal investigators sorted through the massive haul of records they had seized in January, they came across an intriguing file among the documents taken from Olson.

It was labeled simply: "Roxanna."

Inside were handwritten notes and typed lists in which Brown offered to sell Olson dozens of Thai vessels and other antiquities, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in July.

Investigators now believed that their onetime expert was part of the scheme she had helped them unravel -- that she had peddled the very objects she spent her career protecting.

In one undated document, Brown offered to sell Olson ancient bronze bracelets, Neolithic stone tools and Thai ceramics from "burial sites on the Burmese border," according to copies of the correspondence attached to the July affidavit.

In an e-mail dated April 2002 that bears her name, she confirmed that she had received $14,000 in cash from Olson for a prehistoric bronze. Two months later, another e-mail from Brown advised Olson's grandson of a Thai bank account to which additional money could be sent.

Brown's role in the alleged scheme had continued even after she had helped investigators uncover it, the correspondence suggests.

Agents found an e-mail from June 2006, allegedly an exchange between Brown and Jonathan Markell, in which the scholar provided her electronic signature for his use on appraisals. In another e-mail exchange from March 2007, Markell asked Brown to sign six to eight blank appraisal forms for future donations and offered the scholar $300 "for using you, as it were, as the appraiser. . . ."

"If you are nervous about doing this, please realize that the Republicans are still in office, the IRS does not have enough personnel to review small-time appraisals and the appraisals are very well written and will never be challenged," Markell wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail filed with the affidavit.

The documents indicate that Brown responded via e-mail the same day: "No problem! I am delighted to be your partner in this."

Confronted at hotel

On Thursday, May 8, Brown flew to the U.S. to give a lecture at the University of Washington.

She was met by professor Bill Lavely, her host, who dropped her at Seattle's Watertown Hotel with plans to meet Friday evening for dinner.

Los Angeles Times Articles