Defendant Jonathan Markell’s antiquities smuggling case presents a unique opportunity to send a message and afford adequate deterrence to the 'upper end' of the criminal black market for looted archeological resources, i.e., the brokers and gallery owners who sell their wares to the collectors. If we are able to diminish and disincentivize the market (or demand) for illegal antiquities, then we may have an equal effect on taking the monetary incentives out of the act of looting itself. It is the market, or demand, which drives the looters at the ground level to provide the supply of stolen antiquities to meet that demand.
That case failed to serve as a warning to the Markells as the investigation into the husband and wife and their co-conspirators began the following year, in 2003 when a National Park Service (NPS) special agent began to uncover the trafficking network that had been smuggling archaeological material from Southeast Asia.
In January 2008, federal agents from several law enforcement agencies raided a variety of locations, including four museums in California. Police descended on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Bowers Museum, the Pacific Asia Museum, and the Mingei Museum with search warrants to “seize in place” ancient objects identified as potential evidence. Officials simultaneously seized evidence from the Markell’s home as well as their art gallery.
- United States v. Robert Olson and Marc Pettibone, et al., which charged a conspiracy to smuggle Southeast Asian artifacts, including from Thailand and Cambodia, into the United States beginning in 2004;
- United States v. Robert Olson and Jonathan Markell, which charged a conspiracy to smuggle Southeast Asian artifacts, including Burmese antiquities obtained in Thailand beginning in 2003; and
- United States v. Jonathan Markell and Carolynn Markell, which charged a conspiracy to commit tax fraud by making false statements when donating smuggled artifacts to museums in an effort to receive tax deductions.
In short, Jonathan and Carolyn Markell jointly owned and operated the business Markell Imports, Inc., doing business as the Silk Roads Design Gallery ("Silk Roads"). The Markells’ business model consisted of their purchase and importation of art, antiques, and archeological resources from Southeast Asia, and their resale of such merchandise through their Silk Roads art gallery in West Hollywood.
Part of their business model included the intentional use of false declarations and statements in United States Customs entry documents to “smuggle” or introduce the archeological resources “antiquities” into the United States.
During [a police interview], Jonathan Markell stated that he and Carolyn Markell falsified the customs documents to disguise what they were importing because the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement classification process is difficult if they actually identify a piece as an "antique." Carolyn Markell agreed with her husband's statement.
The Markells further justified their behavior by claiming that United States Customs forces people to lie on import declarations because of the delay in clearing Customs if they properly identify an object as an antique.
The attorneys said that neither defendant “admitted ... that they knew that it was illegal to export archeological resources/antiquities from the countries of China, Thailand, and Burma—which is most likely the reason that the antiquities were falsely described in United States Customs import documentation.”
During that discussion, she told the UC that she had been extremely worried about the last shipment of antiquities that she and Jonathan Markell had brought into the United States from Thailand in September 2006—which had included 7 Burmese statues. She related to the UC that the President of the United States had prohibited entry of any Burmese items into the country, and that she had lost sleep worrying that their import shipment would be intercepted by United States Customs authorities. She told the UC that she did not care about being dishonest, but that she didn’t want to get caught.
“On or about December 26, 2003, CAROLYN MARKELL sent an email to a museum representative regarding the provenance of donated items as being a purchase in 1984.
Defendant CAROLYN MARKELL determined that she and defendant JONATHAN MARKELL would purchase items to be donated from a certain co-conspirator. Between an unknown date and January 2008, although defendant JONATHAN MARKELL knew that the seller of a donated item could not appraise the item for tax purposes, he prepared appraisals that falsely inflated the value of donation items he sold as part of a "donation package" he sold to co-conspirators. … In or about April 2007, defendant JONATHAN MARKELL advised an unindicted co-conspirator to change the listed purchase date on a museum donation form because it needed to appear that the co-conspirator had held the item for years, namely, ten years, to take the inflated value as a tax deduction. On or about March 10, 2006, defendant CAROLYN MARKELL contacted a museum curator to discuss the museum's policies and requirements. On or about June 14, 2006, defendant JONATHAN MARKELL solicited a Thailand museum curator's electronic signature which he fraudulently inserted on appraisals of items to be donated that he had prepared. ... On or about March 27, 2007, defendant JONATHAN MARKELL electronically mailed a request to the museum curator in Thailand to sign forms to support co-conspirators' charitable donation tax deductions and to sign six to eight blank forms in blue, to support fraudulently future donations. On or about December 13, 2007, JONATHAN and CAROLYN MARKELL delivered donations to a museum on behalf of a client. Around December 2007, defendant JONATHAN MARKELL donated Ban Chiang antiquities to a museum on behalf of co-conspirators, charging them $3,450 for the items and appraisals to support an $11,425 charitable donation income tax deduction.
There are two types of archeological resource looters: (1) the looter that digs up and collects artifacts as a hobby for his or her own personal collection; and (2) the looter that digs up artifacts for the purpose of selling them to brokers or gallery operators. As with the protection of threatened and endangered wildlife species, the key to protecting and conserving archeological resources is to eliminate markets for illicit/looted antiquities. Without the existence of brokers, middlemen, and gallery owners who are willing to knowingly and intentionally profit from sales of parts and products of threatened or endangered wildlife species or looted archeological resources, there is little monetary incentive for wildlife poachers or archeological resource looters to engage in their nefarious trades.
One might be tempted to think that the archeological resource looter squatting in the deep mud and steaming jungle highlands of Ban Chiang, Thailand is primarily to blame for the devastation of pristine archeological sites and the information lost thereby—just as one might be tempted to lay the bulk of the blame for the loss of the last Northern White Rhinoceros at the feet of the poacher who killed it; but that line of thinking is incorrect. It is individuals such as Jonathan Markell ... the importers, the buyers, and the gallery owners who purchase and acquire such archeological resources or wildlife products for profitable resale who are primarily to blame for the underlying devastation. For these are the individuals who create the markets that create the monetary incentives that drive the poachers and looters into the fields.
Meanwhile, they made the important point that “[a]rcheological resources are non-renewable. The looting of archeological resources causes widespread destruction of archeological sites and results in the loss of archeological information which would be gleaned from a properly excavated site."
More details about the cases can be found on Jason Felch's Chasing Aphrodite blog and at Trafficking Culture.