Bowers Museum – #1 in stolen antiquities?

The San Francisco Chronicle has updated the story about Thai antiquities that ended up in a number of museums, illegally. The items were from the “so-called Ban Chiang culture,” which is the earliest known Bronze Age site in Southeast Asia, documenting the early arrival of culture, agriculture and technology to the region, initially dated as early as 4000 B.C. – a date since revised amid much controversy to 2000 B.C. or even later.”

In case you have forgotten, there was an “undercover investigation by three federal agencies.” The investigation focused on “two Los Angeles antiquities dealers, Cari and Jonathan Markell, and a wholesaler, Bob Olson, who, federal agents say, donated Ban Chiang artifacts to museums at inflated values in a tax fraud scam.” Four California museums – “the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum of Art in Santa Ana, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego – were raided as part of the inquiry.”

Just how many items left Thailand illegally – and how many ended up in the above-referenced museums? “ The Freer and Sackler have 56 works, mostly ceramic vessels. The Met has 33 pieces in its holdings, among them vessels, bronze bracelets, bells and ladles. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has 17, including gray stoneware pots and beakers and assorted clay rollers. The Cleveland Museum has eight artifacts, mainly jars. The Minneapolis Institute owns two ceramic jars and three glass ear ornaments. None of the acquisition records posted online mention the Markells or Olson. And for sheer volume of material, none of these museums approaches the Bowers, which has roughly 1,000 artifacts.”

That’s right. The Bowers was number one in terms of how many possibly illegal artifacts were in their collection! So what is the big deal? “More generally, U.S. case law on cultural patrimony is fast evolving, reflecting a growing awareness that collecting certain objects can encourage looting of archaeological sites. American museums have thus seen foreign laws that were long overlooked at home suddenly taken seriously.”

But did the Bowers break the law? It sure looks like they did. Here are some more excerpts from the Chronicle:
In the affidavits supporting the search warrants in the federal investigation, for example, agents invoke a 1961 Thai law, the Act on Ancient Monuments, Antiques, Objects of Art and National Museums, stating that “buried, concealed, or abandoned” objects are “state property” and cannot legally be removed from Thailand without an official license.

They quote a Thai government official as saying that as far as he knew, Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts “had never given a license to anyone to take antiquities out of Thailand for private sale.”

Then, because a foreign country’s law is not necessarily recognized in the United States, the affidavits cite two federal laws that could give the Thai statute some teeth, the National Stolen Property Act of 1948 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.

Is what the Bowers did a big deal? You bet – “many archaeologists find the collecting of such artifacts distressing because it removes objects from their original, information-rich context. “It destroys the archaeological record,” White said. “It’s shameful really, a destruction of knowledge.”

What would an ethically run museum have done? “We would turn it down,” said Robert Jacobsen, chairman of the Asian art department at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, “and not just because of the investigation in California, but because times have changed. There’s a moral basis here.”

There you have it. Other museums had the moral sense to stay away from the Thai artifacts. The Bowers not only embraced the stolen items, they did so on an unprecedented scale. Don’t forget that Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and Councilman Carlos “Space Commander” Bustamante are members of the Bowers board. They looked the other way while the Bowers broke the law repeatedly. Soon we will find out just what will happen because of that. According to one expert, “this could move forward into an important, precedent-setting case.”

About Admin

"Admin" is just editors Vern Nelson, Greg Diamond, or Ryan Cantor sharing something that they mostly didn't write themselves, but think you should see. Before December 2010, "Admin" may have been former blog owner Art Pedroza.