California Antiquities Dealer Sentenced to Prison for Smuggling and Tax Fraud Scheme

13 California museums were raided in 2008 as part of the investigation.

The Dalai Lama with John and Cari Markell.<br>Photo: Silk Roads Gallery via The New York Times.

The Dalai Lama with John and Cari Markell.
Photo: Silk Roads Gallery via The New York Times

The former antiquities dealer Jonathan Markell has been sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and a year of supervised release for making false declarations in customs documents to smuggle looted archeological artifacts from Southeast Asia into the US.

Markell and his wife Cari ran the now closed Silk Roads Gallery in LA for a decade. According to My News LA, in addition to Markell’s prison sentence, the couple have also been sentenced to probation for carrying out a related tax fraud scheme, whereby they sold smuggled artifacts to clients, who then donated the items to local museums to benefit from the tax write-offs.

The judge also ordered the couple to pay $25,000 to repatriate dozens of stolen antiquities from their home and gallery in LA to Thailand, Cambodia, and other Southeast Asian countries.

Todd Swain, a special agent with the National Park Service, testified in court that, between 2006 and 2007, he went undercover and conducted meetings with the Markells—one of them at the boardroom of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena—in which he posed as an art collector who wanted to discuss purchasing a “package” to be used as a museum donation to claim tax relief.

Federal agents raided the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana in 2008.<br>Photo: Allen J Schnaben, Los Angeles Times via The Art Newspaper.

Federal agents raided the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana in 2008.
Photo: Allen J Schnaben, Los Angeles Times via The Art Newspaper.

According to My News LA, a $1,500 “package” would typically include an antiquity from Thailand, complete with a fake sales invoice and an inflated $5,000 appraisal, signed off by a fake expert.

Dr Joyce White, executive director of the Institute for Southeast Asian Archeology in Philadelphia, told the court that the huge number of archeological items looted and smuggled by the Markells and others were “devastating to the archeology of Thailand.”

Meanwhile, Markell’s attorney, Marilyn Bednarski, told the court that the couple where now living in near poverty, using social security payments and taking in boarders. Assistant US attorney Joseph Johns, however, argued that a pre-sentence investigation had found that the Markells owned about $1.4 million in assets.

The sentence is the culmination of a case that has been unfolding for over 8 years. According to the illicit antiquities trade expert Jason Felch, writing for the Art Newspaper, in January 2008, federal agents raided 13 California institutions that had received artifacts via the Markells, including the Pacific Asia Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Some of the looted pottery vessels that the US government has returned to Thailand Photo via: Voice of America

Some of the looted pottery vessels that the US government has returned to Thailand
Photo via: Voice of America

In November 2014, the US government returned to Thailand hundreds of ancient artifacts looted in the early 1970s from Ban Chiang—an important Neolithic settlement and burial ground in northeast of the country—which were found in the 2008 raid at the Bowers Museum following a five-year federal investigation (called Operation Antiquity) into the smuggling ring in which the Markells had participated.


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