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Stolen-artifacts case has cost much, yielded little, critics say

No museum officials or collectors involved in the Southern California probe have been indicted, and no seized objects have been returned to their countries.

May 18, 2013|By Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times

Olson received the shipments and took them to storage areas in Anaheim and Cerritos before selling them to customers in the United States and elsewhere. Several of Olson's customers allegedly obtained inflated appraisals for the objects and donated them to museums for excessive tax write-offs.

The affidavits allege that some museum officials knew about the source of the donations and accepted them anyway, even as the J. Paul Getty Museum, New York's Metropolitan Museum and others were making headlines for returning dozens of looted objects. Bowers director Peter Keller, Pacific Asia director David Kamansky and LACMA curator Robert Brown had all visited Olson's warehouse, where investigators later found ancient bronze bracelets still attached to human arm bones.

In a 2008 interview with The Times, Olson said he had been dealing in recently excavated Thai antiquities since the 1970s, at times receiving three or four shipping containers a year. He said he knew exporting the objects was against Thai law but he thought it was legal to sell them once they were in the United States.

"The people I got it from weren't doing the digging, they were buying from the diggers," he said.

Among Olson's biggest clients were Barry MacLean, a wealthy Chicago collector and trustee of the Art Institute, and Jonathan and Cari Markell, Los Angeles art dealers whose clients donated many of the objects to local museums. MacLean's storage unit and personal museum and the Markells' house and gallery were among the sites raided in 2008, but none of these people has been charged with a crime. They would not comment on the case.

The indictment cites several times between 2004 and 2008 that Olson offered an undercover agent with the National Park Service illegally imported ancient swords, jewelry, bells and ceramic vessels ranging in value from $800 to $20,000. In 2006, Olson told the agent he had purchased $300,000 worth of items from Pettibone over the last eight years, the indictment alleges.

Many of the antiquities involved in the alleged scheme are of minor value as art but would be valuable to archaeologists had they been excavated in a way that documented their burial context, which is key to understanding the culture that created them.

Olson was arraigned in April and pleaded not guilty. Pettibone remains in Thailand and is not expected to face extradition. The government has indicated it will seek to return objects allegedly trafficked by Olson and Pettibone to the countries from which they were taken.

Despite the setbacks, a conviction would be an important milestone, said Patty Gerstenblith, an expert on cultural property law at DePaul University College of Law. "Without prosecution you really don't have a deterrent."

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