Local museum raided after ongoing investigation into suspicious acquisition and appraisal tactics.
Federal agents raided the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena last Thursday, looking for proof that the museum knowingly accepted stolen and looted items from long-time donors and gallery owners Jon and Cari Markell, alleged art smuggler Bob Olson and an undercover special agent posing as an art collector and donor.
The Pacific Asia Museum was one of four Southern California museums raided that day, leaving the community and museum employees shocked and the museum investigating its donation policies.
“Agents were interested in looking at collections, donation records, and computer files for the most part,” said Pacific Asia Museum executive director Joan Marshall. “They identified specific pieces in the collections that were of interest to them, but those pieces have remained in the museum.”
“We were surprised,” said Pasadena Museum of California Art spokesman Emma Jacobson-Sive. “We are not really a collecting institution so fortunately we don’t have to deal with [collections policies]. In ten years we’ll probably start collecting and then we’ll have to deal with all that.”
“While the issues expressed are serious, we strongly support the museum and look forward to their exoneration,” said Pasadena cultural affairs manager Rochelle Branch.
Regarding whether the Pacific Asia Museum will see a decrease in donations, Branch said, “In my experience, when there is a high profile issue related to collections there might be an effect in the short-term, but once the museum is exonerated it won’t be an issue. I think people are looking for more information.”
Investigating authorities have not brought charges against the Pacific Asia Museum or individuals, but Marshall said, “I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”
Marshall made it clear that the museum is fully cooperating with the government investigation.
“Issues of provenance and issues related to looted and stolen art are of concern to museums all across the country and I think because we are a public institution we have a duty to operate at the highest ethical standards possible and we want to make sure that we are doing that,” said Marshall. “Clearly, the museum did not know it had done something illegally so we’re reviewing everything. We have immediately launched our own internal review of what happened and whether our own policies and procedures were followed.”
According to a search warrant, the Pacific Asia Museum staff’s main offenses were receiving stolen archaeological resources with inflated appraisal values that could enable the undercover agent to claim fraudulent tax deductions and possessing archaeological resources stolen from Thailand. Olson had recommended Susan Lerer to appraise items, and in the warrant’s case she appraised material at $20,000 that the agent bought from Olson for $6,000.
“When someone comes forth with a donation for the museum we are not really concerned with its evaluation,” said Marshall. “The donor gets an independent appraisal of the object and its value is recorded by that person to the IRS if they’re taking tax deductions so we’re not involved in that aspect at all.”
Various laws that prohibit the exportation of antiques and archaeological items from Thailand and China are mentioned in the warrant, which also noted that each of the involved parties somehow admitted to importing, selling or donating stolen items or being suspicious of their origins but accepting them anyway.
In a documented November 2005 meeting, deputy director of collections Marcia Page told the undercover agent that she did not think Ban Chiang material was legal to take out of Thailand anymore and the agent agreed. Page was aware that other museums had gotten into trouble with the IRS for backdating donations and recommended that people higher up in the museum’s management sign the paperwork.
The retiring curator at that time and the new curator examined the antiquities and in December 2005 accepted all the donated pieces, with the exception of those containing human remains and elephant ivory.
While the museum does not technically conduct background checks of donors or material donated, Jon and Cari Markell, the donors in question who own a Los Angeles gallery, have been involved with the Pacific Asia Museum since the mid to late 80s, according to Marshall. Cari was a board member of the museum’s Southeast Asian Council.
“When someone comes with a donation we ask questions about its history, country of origin and previous ownership,” said Marshall. “Sometimes all of that isn’t available but we do request as much as possible from the donor. In many cases, we are not unlike other museums and we are assuming that what the donor is telling us is good information.”
Page is the only employee named in the warrant who still works at the museum and whether she will continue to be an employee “will be part of the investigation review” said Marshall. “We are an institution that has always operated ethically and we certainly want to be known as that type of institution in the future. We are trying to investigate and uncover the facts of the case and make sure if something was done improperly that it’s not done in the future.”
The Pacific Asia Museum has not had contact with the Markells since the raid and Marshall said no other donors have contacted the museum regarding the recent accusations.
The museum is open as usual and displaying some of the items in question.