On May 9, Roxanna M. Brown, 62, the director of the Southeast Asian Ceramics
Museum in Bangkok and a world authority on ancient Southeast Asian ceramics, flew to Seattle, Washington, to speak at the University of Washington. Five days later, she was dead in a federal jail. The case has sent shock waves through the international art collectingcommunity.
Brown, an amputee with a heart condition, is so far the only person to be
arrested in what the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles describes as a five-year investigation into a plot to artificially inflate for tax purposes the value of antiquities donated to museums in Southern California. The indictment, made available by the US Attorney’s office, alleged that Brown loaned her electronic
signature to a gallery in Los Angeles to be used to inflate appraisals of art objects, primarily Ban Chiang pottery from
Thailand. Assistant US Attorney Joseph Johns, the Los Angeles-based prosecutor heading the probe, described Brown as “one of many targets.”
That statement awakened concern on the part of importers, dealers and collectors in the US that they could be arrested next. There is a growing rift between archaeologists demanding that the provenance of all antiquities be proven and permission obtained before objects are exported, and dealers and importers, who say such rules are impractical and impossible. James J. Lally, the former head of Sotheby’s and proprietor of the J.J. Lally art gallery in New York, is a leader of the protest against federal action. Lally was traveling in Europe and unavailable for comment. However, he has argued, for instance, that after 1949, China confiscated all antiquities and, during the cultural revolution, Mao Zedong demanded that they be destroyed as part of what were called the Four Olds: Old Custom, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.
Lally said during an Asia Society conference in New York in 2006 that Asian antiquity sales in the United States account for no more than 4 percent of Asian trade, or about US$65 million. The huge preponderance of the trade is in China, where the value is estimated at US$1.8 billion and where nobody much cares about provenance unless a piece goes overseas. European collectors are not subject to such restrictions. Others point out that legitimate collectors tend to protect art and share it, keeping it for subsequent generations, and that collectors in many ways rescue art that might well be lost otherwise.
Beyond the dispute over provenance rules, Brown’s friends in the art and journalism communities are demanding to know why an internationally recognized figure who suffered from a heart condition and appeared in court in a wheelchair, was kept in jail over the weekend. Although Brown’s death is still under investigation, she was found dead at 2:30 am on May 14, apparently of a perforated ulcer, while awaiting transportation from a federal detention center to Los Angeles. Her brother, in Chicago, said he was certain that stress brought on by the arrest was a contributing factor to her death.
“Roxanna Brown arrived in Seattle without a clue as to what was going on and was blindsided by an overzealous prosecutor,” said a friend of hers. “It's the weekend and none of her university contacts are in the office and she probably doesn't have their home phone numbers. Her cell phone isn't compatible with the US telephone system. A younger, healthier person might have been able to wait until the system started to function. Unfortunately, she was unable to withstand the conditions in which she was held.”
Asked why an amputee in ill health would be considered a flight risk, Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the US Attorney in Seattle, said that “Because of her dual citizenship, there was concern about her remaining in the jurisdiction of the US District Court.”
A letter signed by 432 friends and associates of the dead woman, including William H. Itoh, a former US Ambassador to Thailand, said that “It is not only the cruelty of Roxanna's incarceration we seek to redress, but the slur cast upon her name by the accusations that prompted her arrest. For a scholar of such integrity, who tirelessly sought to raise the level of ethical practice in the trade in ceramics, it is a cruel irony that her reputation has been thus tainted. We cannot bring back Roxanna, but we can try our best to clear her of any shadow of wrongdoing, and restore her good name for the future.”
According to an affidavit filed with the federal court in Los Angeles in support of a search warrant, the story began in September 2003 when customs agents intercepted a shipment of artifacts from Thailand that were bound for the Silk Road Gallery in Los Angeles, owned by Jonathan and Cari Markell. The five-year investigation ultimately alleged that the
Markells knowingly bought, imported and sold stolen Chinese and Thai antiquities and participated in a conspiracy to help others donate the antiquities to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pacific Asia Museum and the Mingei International Museum, all in Southern California.
In addition to receiving stolen antiques, the affidavit alleged, the Markells helped others file false tax returns with inflated charitable deductions. In order to do so, the affidavit alleged, the Markells borrowed Brown’s electronic signature. As one of the world’s top authorities on Thai ceramics, she was in effect certifying the price and provenance of the stolen goods.
According to the affidavit, an undercover agent ultimately befriended the Markells by posing as an art buyer and prospective tax evader. Ultimately, she made 10 purchases of various materials. Because charitable donations over US$5,000 would attract the attention of auditors, all of the donations were for US$4,990. All of the appraisals made by the
Markells allegedly had cover letters falsely stating that they had been prepared by Brown, although she had never seen them. Brown’s electronic signature would ultimately appear on scores of appraisals for donations to museums throughout California.
There is plenty in the affidavit that seems to show the Markells knew what they were doing. The undercover agents asked them pointedly and repeatedly if they knew that what they were doing was illegal. But there is nowhere in the 39-page document that indicates Brown was aware of what her signature was being used for.
“We do not know why the US attorney in Los Angeles took the extreme action he did,” said Tim Ford, a lawyer with MacDonald Hoague & Bayless of Seattle, who was retained by Brown's family. “From what we know about Ms. Brown and what little we know about the circumstances of her arrest, it seems beyond overzealous. However, sadly, the law in the U.S. now gives prosecutors enormous power to arrest and charge and provides for little accountability when that power is abused.”
Brown had a long history in Southeast Asia, having first gone to the region as a freelance correspondent during the Vietnam War. Ultimately, as the conflict wound down, she moved to Thailand and became interested in Southeast Asian arts and ceramics, ultimately receiving a doctorate in art history from the University of California, Los Angeles. She founded and ran the ceramics museum, at Bangkok University that she headed when she died.
In 1990, leaving the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok, the motorcycle on which she was riding was hit from behind by a tuk-tuk and she was thrown under the wheels of a truck, which ran directly over her and crushed her chest and shattered her leg so badly that it had to be amputated.
Brown, say associates, was in large measure responsible for the development and preservation of Southeast Asian ceramic antiquities, although she did not specialize in Ban Chiang pottery, which formed a large part of the objects the Markells donated or helped to donate to museums.
Because of her role in preserving and promoting antiquities, her friends say, it was unthinkable that she would knowingly allow her signature to be used fraudulently.
Asked in an email about the case, Jon Markell replied that “I wish I could comment. My wife and I loved Roxanna, were good friends and were devastated by, first, her arrest and, second, her death.”
The only clue to Brown’s thinking came as she was being removed from her hotel in Seattle by authorities and encountered an associate who saw her being led away. She was reported to have said she had made a mistake and that she had sent her signature. Whether she knew what her signature was going to be used for may never be known.