Thursday, February 28, 2008



The information in the government affidavits may or may not be true. It is not uncommon that much of the government’s case is based on distortions or exaggerations of the facts.

At this time none of the people mentioned in the affidavits have been charged with any crime. The affidavits were used by government agents to obtain search warrants to gather evidence for possible future indictments.

The newspaper articles (either in print or online) clearly distorted at least some of the information provided in the government affidavits. To get a better idea of what is involved in this case, it is best to read the affidavits (links were provided from the online news articles).

Example of newspaper distortion of “facts”: It was widely reported that one of the participants (the Gallery Owner: GO) was offering illegally obtained Thai artifacts to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). "GO" claims that LACMA was a stickler for provenance and proper paperwork, but the museum was aware of a “loophole” that would allow him to donate these items. In the affidavits it was made clear that LACMA museum officials were not “in” on this loophole, but that "GO" was able to provide false documents that would satisfy museum standards. That “small” distortion by the media of the information provided in the affidavits would make it appear LACMA was complicit in the donation of illegal artifacts when this was not the case.

Another distortion stated by the media is that museum officials at some of the targeted institutions assisted in providing high values on donated artifacts. This is not true, as museum officials are not involved in any way with the stated value of donations. That information is provided by the donor or an appraiser and given to the IRS for tax purposes. Obviously, museum officials hope that a donor will receive a high appraised value for the item as it is more likely it will be donated, but the ultimate value is not relevant to the reasons a museum wishes to obtain a donated art object.

It is alleged that some of the participants provided false tax appraisals to the undercover agent (UA) and valued items higher than was paid. There may be problems with these appraisals, such as falsified signatures and dates of purchase, however, it is not illegal to evaluate items at a higher value than what was paid (the IRS does require that items be held for one year otherwise the value is set by cost). Assuming that the items in question were held for more than one year, valuations are based on the fair market value at the time of the appraisal and it is possible that the items were in fact worth what was stated in the appraisal.

As an aside, it is also possible that some or all of these artifacts are not, in fact, authentic, but reproductions of Thai antiquities. The government alleges that an expert of their choosing claims they are authentic, but it is not clear if this expert actually examined the artifacts in person. It should be noted that the vast majority of “antiquities” and “artifacts” publicly offered in source countries, such as Thailand, are reproductions, so it is very likely at least some of the items are not authentic.

Assuming they are authentic, these items are not significant cultural artifacts, but rather common and inexpensive. The Thai government did not instigate this investigation. The Thai government is also aware that several museums in the US and Europe have these artifacts in their collections, but have made no effort to re-claim them. If these artifacts were eventually confiscated and returned to Thailand, they would most likely be stored and forgotten about. It is also possible many of them would find their way out the back door and resurface in antique shops in Bangkok.

It is possible the participants will face charges relating to the importation and sale of illegally obtained antiquities, although that is difficult to gauge at this time. What is more likely are charges relating to possible tax fraud. If the allegations are true, it would seem a more solid case.

Why the big fuss? Why did the Feds send 30-40 agents, arriving early in the morning, with cameras rolling, to acquire the evidence that could have easily been obtained by 2 or 3 agents in suits making an appointment with the museum? Why the big expense for a relatively minor offense? If the allegations are true, then the government has a right to act, but clearly they wanted to make a larger point.

What they were able to do was to scare the hell out of every museum official, appraiser, art collector, and art dealer involved, even remotely, in the antiquities trade. You can bet that within 24 hours, every museum in the US was re-evaluating its acquisitions and donations policies. In addition, any appraiser, collector, or dealer assisting in over-evaluating objects for donation is rethinking their involvement.

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