County Museum board members busted in illegal art sting

The L.A. County Museum of Art got some unexpected visitors this morning, when federal agents arrived en masse with search warrants. The raid, the result of a five-year investigation into illegal dealing of Asian artifacts, according to federal search warrants, also targeted the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and Silk Roads Gallery on La Brea Avenue. Silk Roads, which specializes in Asian art, is owned by Cari and Jonathan Markell, both of whom sit on the board of LACMA's South and Southeast Asian Arts Council, according to the gallery's Web site.

LACMA, which is gearing up for the opening of its new Broad Contemporary Art Museum next month, can't seem to catch a break. Last week, in an interview with The New York Times, Eli Broad – who funded the Renzo Piano design and building of BCAM, as the new wing is known, and who was expected to eventually donate much of his vast collection to LACMA – announced that he had decided not to donate his art to any institution and would instead continue to loan it. Although museum officials put on a good face, saying they never expected a full gift and were content to work with loans, the announcement was widely seen as a major disappointment for the museum – one in a long string of them. (The disappointment was somewhat mitigated by a large gift of modernist works from the collection of Janice and Henri Lazarof.)

Flanked by Deputy Dirctor Nancy Thomas, LACMA Director Michael Govan held a noon press conference at the museum in which he repeatedly cited LACMA's transparency in its dealings with acquisitions. “All of our objects are published immediately on our website so the world can see what we have – and comment publicly,” he said, further referencing a Polish textile in LACMA's collection that was identified under this process and returned to its rightful owners last year. Govan couldn't specify exactly which pieces were under investigation by the US attorney's office, but said the objects in question were “of South and Southeast Asian descent.”

Though the U.S. attorney's office refused to comment on the ongoing investigation, Federal search warrants state that LACMA's involvment in the investigation stems from its acquisition of several unlawful donations from Silk Roads Gallery owners Jonathan and Cari Markell. Warrants state that the museum was the beneficiary of several Thai “Ban Chiang” objects, whose unauthorized export from Thailand is illegal under the 1961 Thai Act.

Furthermore, according to the warrant, undercover officers say that Markell told them LACMA officials used a “loophole” to get around the purchase of an ancient Central Thai vessel considered offlimits to foreign acquisition under the Thai Act.

In his press conference, Govan denied the use of such tactics, saying “If you know of any such loopholes please cite them for me, because I'm not aware of their existence.”

Despite the one suggestion of impropriety, the warrant further went on to label LACMA a “stickler for good provenance, including proof of the legality of the acquisition,” and stated that Jonathan Markell repeatedly conspired to deceive the museum about the provenance of several artifacts, and subsequently claimed the donated works as tax deductions.

Govan said Markell has donated “about 60” pieces to the museum over the years.

Download PDFs of the search warrants issued to the museums here: LACMA, Bowers and Pacific Asia Museum.

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