Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Museums Taxed by New Allegations January 31, 2008

A federal investigation uncovers fraud and antiquities laundering, raising more questions about museums and the illicit trade in artifacts.

After a five-year undercover investigation, federal agents executed coordinated raids on four southern California museums and an art gallery on the morning of Thursday, January 24, exposing an antiquities trading scheme involving artifacts thought to have been illegally dug up or stolen from Thailand, Myanmar, China, and Native American sites, and then sold to a dealer, Jonathan Markell. During the investigation, Markell sold artifacts to an undercover agent and provided fraudulent, inflated appraisals of the objects' value. Markell and the agent then arranged to donate the antiquities to museums, laundering the objects and reaping the tax deductions. The museums served with the search warrants were the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum in Orange County, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, and the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. Why they would acquire objects with such suspect provenance is a matter of debate (Bennett Bronson, emeritus curator of Asian antiquities at Chicago's Field Museum speculated it might be "sheer stupidity"), but the case is another black eye for the museum industry, which is still smarting from recent cases involving looted Italian and Greek antiquities. In the days since the initial raids, the investigation has expanded to include Mesoamerican artifacts, a collector in Chicago who serves on the board of the Art Institute there, and a gallery in Encino, California.--Samir S. Patel

In the following opinion piece, Robert Bagley, a specialist in Asian art and archaeology at Princeton University, and Patty Gerstenblith, director of DePaul University's program in art and cultural heritage law, weigh in on the complicity of museums in the looting of cultural material--and offer some alternatives:

Along with the ongoing trial of former Getty Museum curator Marion True, the recent return of looted works of ancient art to Italy and Greece by the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Princeton University Art Museum has focused worldwide media attention on the pillaging of ancient monuments and sites. Now court documents filed in a federal undercover sting operation have just revealed a web of smuggling, theft and tax fraud surrounding the acceptance of recently looted or stolen Asian and Native American artifacts by museums in southern California. These events have thrown an embarrassing spotlight on the unscrupulous acquisition practices of many U.S. museums, practices that directly or indirectly subsidize looting and smuggling. Despite the protestations of their curators and directors that they no longer acquire looted artifacts, some American museums still do.

The link between museums and pillaging is not tenuous or hard to see, it is tight and crystal clear. Ancient cemeteries are looted in search of artifacts, buildings and monuments are broken up into portable fragments, and networks of smugglers exist and thrive, all for the sole purpose of feeding an international market in antiquities. Looters pillaging an ancient graveyard care for nothing but salable objects convenient for smuggling. Whatever is too fragile to preserve or too awkward to transport or unlikely to bring a good price--in other words, most of what the graveyard contains--is left to rot or, often, deliberately destroyed. What the looter takes and passes on to the smuggler is then sold by dealers to private collectors and museums. Much of what private collectors buy sooner or later ends up in museums: the collectors obtain charitable tax deductions by donating their collections and the museums acquire laundered objects.

The Association of Art Museum Directors has yet to adopt a meaningful policy on acquisitions of antiquities. Directors of several major U.S. museums defend their no-questions-asked acquisitions policies, denying that they have any obligation to investigate the source or recent ownership history of objects they acquire. The museums that are the final destination for stolen antiquities defend their policies by pointing out that they are educational institutions, as though the word "education" conferred an exemption from ethics and a license to break the law.

Some of them even claim that buying a looted artifact is a noble deed: they piously deplore the looting--which their purchases fund--and say "in this sad situation, it was our duty to rescue the object and save it for humanity." The museums then pay scholarly curators to make guesses about the date of the object, what it is, where it came from--things that we will never know for sure because of the way the object was acquired. Educational institutions are subsidizing the destruction of antiquities, the destruction of ancient sites, the destruction of knowledge.

Federal agents invested considerable resources in the current sting operation. The U.S. government should now take two further steps. Three years ago, China, one of the countries whose antiquities feature in this latest scandal, asked the United States for import restrictions on undocumented antiquities. Bowing to political pressure from dealers and collectors, the State Department has dragged its feet and failed to respond. It remains easy for dealers to bring looted Chinese antiquities into the United States. It is also time for Congress to examine the way in which our tax system grants tax deductions to donors of antiquities. These tax deductions mean that the destruction wrought by looters is subsidized by the American public.

In an ever-smaller world, and an increasingly multicultural society, our museums have an educational mission whose importance would be hard to overstate. For many people the art museum is the most immediate, effective and appealing way to encounter the past and to engage with other cultures. But amassing collections of looted antiquities is not the way for our museums to fulfill their mission, though many museum directors would have us believe otherwise. With the money required to buy one major object that will be seen by a trickle of visitors over the years, a museum could organize a loan exhibition that would bring it a hundred major objects and that would be seen by thousands or tens of thousands of visitors in a matter of months. Which way of spending the money does more for education? When some museum directors choose to purchase one object rather than borrow a hundred, they claim to be acting in the interests of their visitors, but surely they are deceived as to their own motives. They are motivated by a curatorial culture that puts acquisition above all else--acquisition before education, before knowledge, before the public interest. It is through intercultural exchanges, not through trafficking in illicit antiquities, that American museums should fulfill their educational mission and discharge their responsibility to the American public.

Robert Bagley
Patty Gerstenblith

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America