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My story last night on the Mingei International Museum focused on what federal investigators in 2008 called a smuggling ring for illegally excavated artifacts, pottery and jewelry from Thailand’s Ban Chiang archaeological site.
As I’ve talked with people around town since taking over the arts beat, a lot of people remember the media frenzy about the Mingei raid but no one seemed to know what had happened since. That’s likely because even the museum hasn’t heard anything since the raid. Only one set of criminal charges has been filed, against Roxanna Brown, an academic who studied the Ban Chiang culture from a post at the University of Bangkok. When Brown flew to the United States to give a lecture in 2008, she was apprehended at her hotel and died a couple of days later in federal custody.
If the Mingei story last night piqued your interest, I’ve got a couple of pieces of recommended reading:
• One of the intriguing tentacles of this story is the character of Brown, who was also one of the youngest Vietnam War freelance reporters and was run over by a truck in Thailand before getting her doctorate and becoming one of the world’s leading experts in Southeast Asian ceramics. Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch wrote a three-part series about Brown’s fascinating life after she died. She remains to this point the only person charged in relation to the 2008 raids for allegedly letting her signature be used on inflated appraisal forms in valuations of artifacts and donations.
• Felch and his LA Times colleague, Ralph Frammolino, dug into the looted antiquities subject at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and were finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for their investigations. They revealed that dozens of pieces in the Getty’s collection, including a statue of Aphrodite, had come to the museum through a shady underworld of antiquities looting and trading. The museum returned dozens of pieces to Italy in the last few years. The reporter duo wrote a captivating book I just finished reading about the history of the Getty and the international implications of illicit antiquities called “Chasing Aphrodite.”
Western museums have been stuck in a lot of interesting tug-of-wars in recent years with the source countries of some of their most prized possessions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned a 2,500-year-old vase, the Euphronios krater, after arguing with Italy about it for three decades. The British Museum has been fighting with Greece for decades over its collection of the so-called Elgin Marbles.
Have you read any articles or books that should be added to the list of recommended reading to catch up on this topic? Anything from the story last night that you’d like to know more about? Leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to track down the answer.