Alert to Looted Treasures

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Antiquities dealers who sell exotic works often acquire them from other countries. Collectors can write off the value of paintings that they donate to museums on their taxes. But what happens when dealers smuggle stolen artifacts and package them with phony documents to create tax write-offs for their clients? The answer, according to a story in, is that the smugglers will go to prison for tax fraud. (It’s doubtful that the artifacts of prison life will hold much archeological significance.)

According to the story, a husband and wife owned and operated a gallery specializing in Southeast Asian antiquities in Los Angeles, California. Their smuggling operation involved removal of dozens of stolen archeological pieces from Thailand, Cambodia, and other countries, and falsification of customs declaration forms. (Duping our government, stealing from other countries, and lying to clients—that will be their legacy.) They sold the stolen artifacts for years as ”packages” to clients, accompanied by post-dated sales invoices and forged appraisals with inflated values. Unwitting collectors proceeded to donate the artifacts they purchased to museums for tax write-offs.

The story explains that the conspiring Californians’ conspiracy was uncovered by a special agent with the National Park Service, (a secret agent who protects antiquities—cool) who posed as a businessman and discussed purchasing a package from the dealers so he could donate the artifact to a museum and obtain a tax write-off. The couple, who pleaded guilty to operating a tax evasion scheme, were sentenced to probation and ordered to pay $25,000 to repatriate and return artifacts seized from their gallery and home. The husband was also sentenced to 18 months in prison, followed by one year of supervised release. (Maybe when he gets out, he can focus on something to advance civilization, instead of looting it.)

The crimes committed by this couple were not only an offense to taxpayers, but also to other countries and the archaeologists working in Southeast Asia to better understand the history of that region. One expert at their trial testified that their massive theft was ”devastating to the archeology of Thailand.” Buyer beware is always a good practice. Buyer beware of fraud may make better inspectors of all of us.

Source: Today’s ”Fraud of the Day” is based on an article titled, ”Calling Indiana Jones: Looted artifacts, tax scheme send ex-antiquities dealer to prison,” posted by Hillary Jackson and published by on December 14, 2015.

An ex-antiquities dealer who ran a complex Los Angeles-based tax fraud scheme involving looted artifacts was sentenced Monday to a year and a half in federal prison for making false declarations in customs documents in order to bring stolen archeological resources into the United States.

Jonathan Markell, 70, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson to 18 months behind bars followed by a year of supervised release.

An undercover federal agent and an expert in Southeast Asian antiquities both testified about the extent of the smuggling scheme, which, according to prosecutors, duped Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and other institutions.

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Larry Benson
Larry Benson is currently the Director of Strategic Alliances for Revenue Discovery and Recovery at LexisNexis Risk Solutions. In this role, Benson is responsible for developing partnerships for the tax and revenue and child support enforcement verticals. He focuses on embedded companies that have a need for third-party analytics to enhance their current offerings.