Museum May House Illegally Taken Works

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The Berkeley Art Museum may have received more than a dozen stolen artifacts from a Southern California couple now being investigated for selling or donating looted antiquities.

After searching four Southern California museums for evidence against a smuggling and tax evasion ring last Thursday, federal officials contacted the Berkeley museum, which may have artifacts allegedly stolen by Robert Olson, according to signed affidavits. Olson had been smuggling items out of Thailand and Burma since about 1980, according to the affidavits.

"We have been contacted by federal investigators, and we're cooperating fully with their investigation," said museum spokesperson Jonathan Knapp.

Olson allegedly gave artifacts to Jon and Cari Markell, who then appraised them for inflated values and donated them to museums for tax deductions, according to affidavits. The couple owns the Silk Roads Gallery in Southern California.

Since September 2003, a federal undercover agent has been in contact with the Markells, exchanging e-mails and recording phone calls about purchasing illegally acquired artifacts. He made approximately 10 purchases from them, according to the affidavits.

The artifacts are from the Ban Chiang civilization of Southeast Asia.

In 2006, the undercover agent donated ceramic vessels from Thailand to the Berkeley Art Museum. The agent paid $1,500 cash to Jon Markell, who appraised the vessels at $4,850, the affidavit stated.

According to the search warrants, the Markells had forged cover letters on the appraisal, stating it was prepared by another party. The cover letters referred to Cari Markell and Robert Olson as independent, disinterested third parties supporting appraisal values.

Jon Markell set appraisal values just below $5,000 because higher values require further documentation when filing for tax write-offs, the affidavit stated.

In late June 2007, the Markells sent a collection of Ban Chiang archaeological resources to the Berkeley Art Museum on behalf of the agent. The agent again paid $1,500 in cash for the artifacts that Markell appraised to be worth $4,945 each.

But the museum rejected this donation, stating the material was archaeological rather than artistic, according to the affidavit.

The four museums raided on Thursday, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, had all accepted donations from the Markells or their associates.

According to search warrants, museum curators in the Pacific Asia Museum in Southern California sometimes knowingly accepted items that had no proof of legality.

"The (undercover agent) asked (Jon Markell) if the museum staff knew the real story and (Jon Markell) indicated that they did," the affidavits stated.

The Silk Roads Gallery was also searched on Thursday, but officials from the Silk Roads Gallery did not return calls for comment.


Contact Taylor Fife at [email protected]

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