January-February 2008


The looting of archaeological sites is now endemic in Iraq, though there is very little information available about what is happening “on-the-ground”. On January 22, the Los Angeles Times reported a rare interview with a Bagdhad resident (one pseudonymous Abu Saif) who illegally digs archaeological sites (A. Zavis, “Ancient civilization … broken to pieces”). Saif, now in his mid-30s, said he was 14 when he was first encouraged to dig archaeological sites by his relatives. He works with four or five associates, responding to tips from farmers, and finishes a dig in two to three days. He works away from famous sites, looking for coins, jewelry and cuneiform tablets. Any proceeds are split between the diggers and the land owner. He said he considers digging to be a hobby, and he does it for the “thrill of it”. Although he once paid Shiite militia to protect his team while it worked, he now prefers to work without armed protection.


Forged artworks and cultural artifacts regularly appear on the market. They appear because they are detected, but the suspicion persists that many go undetected and enter collections. On January 23, Der Spiegel published on-line an article investigating the prevalence fake antiquities (M. Schulz, “Ancient forgeries fool art markets”). One was a bronze statue of Artemis sold at Sotheby’s on June 7, 2007 to the dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi for $25.5 million. Offered as Roman, two German academics have now questioned its authenticity. Another case involves what was purported to be a Roman bronze bust of Alexander the Great bought from dealer Robin Symes and placed on display at the Winckelmann Museum in the German town of Stendal. It has been widely denounced as a forgery. Cristoph Leon, Basel-based antiquities dealer, said that such forged pieces can cost up to a million Euros to produce, and spoke of a Spanish workshop. The article also drew attention to the importance of academic authentication for the market, and the fees that academics can be paid – from 3 to 5 percent of an object’s value.


On January 28, 84-year-old George Greenhalgh of Bolton, United Kingdom, was given a two-year suspended jail sentence for his part in a conspiracy to make and sell forged artifacts and paintings (D. Pallister, 'The antiques rogue show", Guardian, January 28). His son Shaun and his wife Olive had already been sentenced in November 2007 after pleading guilty to similar charges. From 1989 to 2007 the Greenhalghs sold a series of forgeries to museums and collectors worldwide, making something like £850,000 in the process. The highlight of their enterprise was a 20-inch Amarna-style alabaster figure of a princess, sold to the United Kingdom’s Bolton Museum in 2003 for £440,000. Its provenance was said to be an (unillustrated) entry in an 1892 auction catalogue. Scotland Yard was alerted to their activities more than once, but it was not until 2005 that the Greenhalghs were finally exposed when they tried to sell some fake Assyrian reliefs to the British Museum. Experts at Bonhams auction house raised questions about the relief’s authenticity and the police were called in.


On January 3, the University of Virginia announced that it was returning two marble acrolithic heads to Italy. Dating from about 525 BC, the acroliths were excavated illegally in the late 1970s from a sanctuary at the Sicilian archaeological site of Morgantina. By 1980 they were in the hands of London dealer Robin Symes, who then sold them to US businessman Maurice Tempelsman for a reported $1 million. They were recognized in the early 1990s and in 2002 Tempelsman loaned them to Virginia for five years on the understanding that at the end of that time they would be returned to Italy. After their return they will be displayed at the archaeological museum at Aidone (“University of Virginia returns rare Archaic sculptures to Italy”, University of Virginia press release, January 3; E. Povoledo, “Two marble sculptures to return to Italy”, New York Times, September 1).


Also in January, the New York collector Shelby White relinquished possession of ten Greek and Etruscan artifacts to Italy. Italian authorities had identified the pieces on polaroids seized in 1995 during a raid on the Swiss warehouses of dealer Giacomo Medici, who was subsequently convicted in 2005 of trading in stolen goods and conspiracy. Italy has agreed not to claim any other pieces in White’s collection that were published in the 1990 exhibition catalogue Glories of the Past. Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection (E. Povoledo, “Collector returns art Italy says was looted”, New York Times, January 18).


The trials of 70 people arrested during Operation Ghelas commenced in February. Ghelas was a major investigation into artifacts smuggling which began in 2005 when Orazio Pellegrino of Gela, Sicily was placed under surveillance. It continued with the raid on the Zurich house of Italian taxi driver Francesco Davoli, who informed on several of his associates. Ultimately the investigation extended to the United States and the United Kingdom, and included the Munich auction house Gorny & Mosch and the Barcelona dealer Bea Felix Cervera. More than 2000 artifacts were recovered. Teachers, Government officials and a member of the Carabinieri were among the people arrested in Italy (C. Drake, “Italy awaits biggest ever trial of tomb robbers”, Art Newspaper, January, no. 187).


US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced in January the return of a marble head of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to Algeria. The piece had been recovered by ICE from Christie’s auction house in New York. It had been stolen in 1996 along with eight other pieces from a museum in the Algerian town of Skikda.


ICE announced in February that it had arrested US Army helicopter pilot Edward George Johnson on charges relating to the sale of artifacts from the Egyptian Predynastic site of Ma’adi that had been stolen from a storage facility near Cairo. The ICE news release (February 6) claims that Johnson had been on active service in Cairo from February to October 2002, and on his return to the US in January 2003 he contacted a Texas dealer (now based in Washington DC) and offered to sell some Egyptian antiquities. Johnson said the artifacts had belonged to his grandfather who had acquired them in Egypt during the 1930s and 1940s. The dealer paid in the region of $20,000 to Johnson for something like 80 pieces.


On January 24, four Southern California art museums were raided by federal agents, and suspect objects and associated documentation were seized (J. Felch, “4 Southland museums raided in looting probe”, Los Angeles Times, January 24). The museums were the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pacific Art Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. The raids were carried out as part of an on-going investigation into the activities of antiquities dealers Robert Olson, whose residence and storage facility in Cerritos were also raided, and Jonathan and Cari Markell, proprietors of the Los Angeles Silk Roads Gallery. The investigation had been conducted since 2003 by the Internal Revenue Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with the help of an undercover investigator recruited from the National Park Service. The undercover investigator had posed as a private collector and recorded meetings with the dealers and with museum officers. Affidavits lodged with the United States Central District of California Court (see below) allege that Olson and Markell dealt in archaeological artifacts removed illegally from several south-east Asian countries, and, in Olson’s case, from federal land in the US. They further allege that Olson and Markell provided artifacts with falsely inflated valuations for tax-deductable donation to museums. The investigation centered on Ban Chiang artifacts from Thailand.

The affidavits filed were against:
  1. Robert Olson, stating probable cause to believe that he had knowingly traded stolen or illegally-removed Native American, Thai and Khmer archaeological artifacts in violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) and the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), and furthermore that he had engaged in a conspiracy to prepare false tax returns.
  1. The Bowers Museum, stating probable cause to believe that the Museum had received stolen or illegally-removed Native American and Thai artifacts in violation of ARPA and NSPA, and that the receipt of these artifacts had enabled a conspiracy to prepare false tax returns.
  1. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, stating probable cause to believe that Jonathan Markell and his wife Cari Markell had traded in Chinese and Thai artifacts knowing them to be stolen in violation of the California penal code and ARPA, and that they had engaged in a conspiracy to prepare false tax returns.
  1. The Pacific Asia Museum, stating probable cause to believe that the museum had received artifacts stolen from Thailand in contravention of the California penal code, ARPA and the NSPA, and that museum staff had enabled a conspiracy to prepare false tax returns.
  1. The Mingei International Museum, stating probable cause to believe that the museum had received artifacts stolen from Thailand in violation of the California Penal Code and ARPA, and that museum staff had enabled a conspiracy to prepare false tax returns.
Robert Olson

From April 2003 the undercover investigator had met with Olson on more than 25 occasions, and ICE and customs officers had intercepted approximately 16 international shipments destined for Olson. Most of the shipments contained artifacts over 100 years old and most though not all were valued at under $5,000 each.

Olson claimed to have dealt in Ban Chiang and other Thai artifacts since 1980. He said in 2004 that everything in his possession had been imported over the previous four years and that he had never received a Thai export permit. He admitted to having had contact with illegal diggers in Thailand and to having received freshly dug artifacts, and had in his possession photographs of illegal digs in Thailand, showing human remains and artifacts. He attached ‘Made in Thailand’ labels to artifacts or otherwise misdescribed them to smuggle them out of Thailand disguised as replicas, and on occasion had paid bribes to Thai customs personnel.

Olsen claimed in his defense to be in receipt of a letter sent by US Customs in 2002 stating that the import into the US of illegally-exported Thai Buddha statues did not violate any US law, though a subsequent letter sent in 2004 did advise him that it would probably be in violation of US law.

Olson said he had sold most of his stock in 2001 to a man in Tennessee, but was still in possession of between 2,500 and 3,000 pieces of pottery and thousands of bracelets. He also said in 2007 that he and his daughter Meredith Olson were selling artifacts on eBay, where the investigator found that they had sold at least 132 lots of Thai and Cambodian artifacts.

In 2003 Olson claimed to have largest collection of Native American ladles in the world. At one point he had in his possession 73 ladles, selling half to the Bowers Museum and donating the other half. Some of the ladles had been obtained illegally from sites on federal land including the Chaco Culture National Historic Park and the El Malpais National Monument


The investigation against the Markells commenced in September 2003 when ICE agents investigating Olson intercepted a shipment from Thailand addressed jointly to Olson and Jonathan Markell. Olson informed the investigator that he was doing business with the Markells. The Markells subsequently sold the investigator Thai and Burmese artifacts thought to be have been stolen in the case of Thailand and illegally exported in the case of Burma. J. Markell said he had started trading in Ban Chiang artifacts in 1988 and visited Thailand personally to buy Thai and Burmese material, but that since 2004 it had been harder to buy material in Thailand and prices had increased. The Markells also talked about importing material from China, saying that since 1997 it had become more difficult. At one time their Chinese contact was able to export 20 containers of material at a time, but now could only get half a container out.

J. Markell claimed to have donated Ban Chiang material to several different museums, with each donation valued at less than $5000 to obviate the need for an independent appraisal of value. In early 2006, the investigator expressed an interest in donating Ban Chiang material to a museum in order to claim a tax deduction. Markell said that he charged $1,500 for an artifact that would be appraised at just under $5,000. The $1,500 covered the price of the artifact and of the appraisal.

A search of museum websites conducted as part of the investigation revealed that UC Berkeley Art Museum, PAM and LACMA listed 65 Ban Chiang objects donated by the Markells over the years 1993, 1996-1999 and 2001-2005. PAM and LACMA listed approx 47 Ban Chiang objects donated by people thought to be relatives or clients of the Markells.

In 2006 UC Berkeley Art Museum accepted a donation of Ban Chiang pottery. The investigator paid $1,500 cash to J Markell. Markell appraised the material for $4,850 in the name of Roxanna Brown and shipped it directly to the museum. In June 2007, the UC Berkeley Art Museum refused a second donation of on the grounds that it was archaeological rather than artistic.

Bowers Museum

In 2003, Olson told the investigator he could provide him with artifacts costing about $800 each that could be appraised for between $4,500 and $4,700 each and donated to the Bowers Museum in exchange for a tax deduction against the appraised values. In June 2003 the investigator met with Olson and Armand Labbé, who was at the time Chief Curator at the Bowers (he died in April 2005). There were about 42 boxes in museum storage containing Ban Chiang material, each box containing about 20-30 artifacts. In September 2003 the investigator met again with Olson and Labbé, this time at Olson’s storage facility. Olson produced some newly imported artifacts from Thailand and asked Labbé what pieces the museum might be interested in acquiring as a donation. Labbé advised that the Bowers would require a signed statement from a donor confirming he had legal title, and that if the object was valued at under $4,500 no independent appraisal would be necessary. In December 2003, at a further meeting, Olson told the investigator that Labbé had selected what artifacts he wanted for the Bowers, and that they would be appraised by Joel Malter (now deceased). The investigator would need to claim to have owned the objects for more than one year to qualify for a tax reduction. Olson wanted payment in cash so it could not be traced and a minimum purchase of $10,000, for which the investigator would receive a $40,000 valuation. A few days later the investigator met Olsen at his storage facility, and paid him $12,000 for a selection of artifacts, mostly from Thailand. Malter valued them at $44,700. On December 9, 2003 the investigator met Labbé at the Bowers Museum. Labbé told him that the museum had spent about $30-40,000 that year purchasing objects, but had received about $4 million worth of objects as donations. In January 2005 the investigator purchased another group of items, largely from Ban Chiang, selected by Labbé from Olson for $6,000. By that time, however, Labbé had died and museum refused to accept the donation.

Pacific Asia Museum

In July 2005, on the suggestion of Markell, the investigator took the material the Bowers had rejected to Susan Lerer for appraisal. Her appraisal for $18,775 did not come through until March 2006. It stated that she had consulted with Bob Olson, but did not mention that Olson had originally sold the material 15 months before for only $6,000, nor that similar objects had recently been sold on Internet sales for prices lower than the appraised values. By the time the appraisal came through, the investigator had already met with Marcia Page, Deputy Director of Collections at the PAM, and Jeffery Taylor, Registrar, and offered them the material for donation. In December 2005 PAM informed the investigator that curators David Kamansky and Rochelle Kessler had agreed that the museum should accept all of the material except for pieces containing human remains or elephant ivory. The investigator provided substitute objects.

In March 2006, curators Kessler and Meher McArthur agreed to accept another donation of Ban Chiang material, obtained by the investigator from the Markells for $1,500 cash and with an appraised value of $4,990. The appraisal stated falsely that it had been prepared by Roxanna Brown, curator at the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum of Bangkok University, and represented Olson and Markell as independent experts not connected with the sale. In April 2006, J Markell sent the PAM a false provenance, stating that he had bought all of his Ban Chiang artifacts from a man at another museum between the years 1984-1986.

Mingei International Museum

In early 2006, the investigator approached J. Markell about donating some Ban Chiang artifacts to a museum in return for a tax deduction. In June 2006, Rob Sidner, director of the Mingei, agreed to accept a donation, but enquired about provenance. Markell replied that the artifacts had come from the collection of Ben Johnson sometime around 1983-1985. Ben Johnson was formerly a conservator at LACMA, and Markell later admitted to using Johnson as a provenance because he was now dead and so could not deny it. The investigator paid Markell $1,500 cash and received an appraisal for $4,985 electronically signed by Markell in another name, and shipped the material to the Mingei later that day. Over the next two years, the investigator made several more donations of Ban Chiang artifacts, all falsely appraised.

In June 2007, the investigator informed Sidner that the appraisals written by Markell were all falsely attributed to Roxanna Brown. Nevertheless, in September 2007 the Mingei accepted another Ban Chiang piece from the investigator.


Three of the museums issued press releases in response to the raids.


LACMA stated it was cooperating with the investigation and that no objects had been removed from its possession. It was investigating museum records of the objects concerned. In a press conference, the museum’s director Michael Govan pointed out that, according to the affidavits, Markell had warned the investigator off LACMA because they were “sticklers for having good provenance”. Govan also denied that LACMA knew of any legal loopholes of the type alleged in the affidavits by Markell (E. Wyatt, ‘US agents raid gallery and 4 museums in Southern California’, International Herald Tribune, January 25).


PAM (January 28) announced that it does not condone ‘trafficking in looted artwork, nor does it value or appraise objects. It had launched its own internal investigation into allegations made in the affidavits, comprising a task force led by Joan Marshall (Executive Director of the museum), trustee Robert Sheen, and several other trustees, and an outside museum professional. The task force would also review the PAM’s policies and procedures as regarding donations. Until the investigation is complete, the PAM had suspended all collection donations.


The Mingei (January 25) announced it was cooperating fully with the investigators, and that if the investigation showed that any donated objects had been offered illegally, the museum would take “appropriate action”.


After the raids, Olson was interviewed by the New York Times (E. Wyatt, ‘An investigation focuses on antiquities dealer’, January 21) and the Orange County Register (D. Irving, ‘Man in Bowers probe says he did nothing wrong’, January 25). He denied he had done anything illegal, and maintained that he had never been told otherwise. He said he had moved into the artifacts trade after dealing in turquoise in the early 1970s, when one of his contacts alerted him to the market for Native American artifacts. Later on, while at a wedding in Thailand, he saw artifacts on sale in shop. Armand Labbé, who by that time he had already met when donating his Native American ladles to the Bowers, expressed an interest and they agreed that Olson should return to Thailand to acquire some artifacts for an exhibition. After the exhibition, Olson started importing artifacts on a regular basis, visiting Thailand several times a year and using a shipping company to transport them back to the United States. He explained the apparent mark-up in value at appraisals by saying that he sold at below retail prices to regular clients. He said the Bowers had received “hundreds, hundreds” of objects from him.

According to the New York Times, a $1,500 object appraised for $5000 would net a taxpayer in the maximum tax bracket about $700. The Times also interviewed Roxanna Brown at Bangkok University, who said that she had met Olson, though never in Thailand (M. Wald, ‘Tax scheme is blamed for damage to artifacts’, February 4).

The same day as the California museum raids, federal agents also searched the private museum of Barry MacLean, a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. The affidavit alleged that he had acquired material from Olson, and Olson confirmed over the phone that MacLean had purchased $50,000-$100,000 worth of artifacts a year from him over the eight to ten year period they had done business together (J. Felch & M. Boehm, ‘Chicagoan’s collection target in looted art probe’, Chicago Tribune, January 30). A further affidavit was issued against the Malter Galleries of Encino, California, mentioning dealers Michael Malter and Robert Perez (E. Wyatt, “Papers show wider focus in inquiry of artifacts”, New York Times, January 30).

The Orange County Register launched its own inquiry into the Bowers Museum. When quizzed by the Register about allegations made in the affidavits, the museum director Peter Keller replied that in the 1990s the museum had had introduced a requirement for any potential donor to sign a statement affirming good title. The museum had, in effect he said, placed the responsibility for ensuring that a piece was legally in the US on the donor. He also referred to an ‘international treaty’ of 1979, though did not specify what treaty he meant. He said that Labbé had assured him that Olson’s objects were in the US legally, and that once Labbé had fallen ill the Bowers had stopped accepting donations (L. Bleiberg, ‘Bowers director: allegations are false’, Orange County Register, January 24). The Register also reported that Keller was buying objects for his own private collection and donating them to the Bowers for a tax deduction. It quoted him as saying “You value your collection as something, and you get a tax write-off for it” (R. Chang & L. Bleiberg, “Bowers Museum faces aftermath of federal raid over artifacts”, January 26).


In February, the Yale Daily News revealed some previously undisclosed terms in the yet to be implemented September 2007 agreement between Yale and Peru over the disposition of artifacts removed from Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham in 1912 (P. Needham, “Sept. memo reveals Peru concessions”, February 14). The agreement apparently stipulates that any future legal action concerning the artifacts should be conducted in the US District Court of Connecticut according to Connecticut state law. The presumption is that a Connecticut court would be more sympathetic towards Yale than a Peruvian one. Problems have also arisen over what should count as the “museum quality” pieces to be returned to Peru and the “research” pieces to be kept at Yale for a further 99 years. Peabody curator of the Machu Picchu artifacts Richard Burger revealed he had assessed the pieces himself, though he had “erred on the side of Peru”.

In a February 23 Op-Ed contribution to the New York Times, Eliane Karp-Toledo, wife of former president Alejandro Toledo, who had also viewed the agreement, expressed her dissent. She asked why it is Yale, and not Peru, deciding what should be returned, and why in any case Yale should be allowed to keep anything at all. Richard Burger replied that Peru had never asked to inspect the Yale collection (P. Needham, “Times column exacerbates Yale-Peru negotiations”, Yale Daily News, February 25).