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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
08/18/2010

Ancient artifacts returned to Cambodia via the USNS Mercy

ICE/HSI led investigations have museums looking closer at their collections

The pier side scene on July 17, 2010, in Cambodia was as reverential as it was magnanimous. Buddhist monks bowed their heads and blessed each gingerly unwrapped ancient artifact after the carefully crated cargo was offloaded from the Military Sealift Command's hospital ship USNS Mercy. The holy men then led a crowd of people in prayers of thanks for the bounty that was brought back to the Cambodian people. The treasures included a Cambodian temple decoration, a decorative buckle, a bronze leaf, a bronze Buddha, a two-piece sandstone sculpture and others items. Some of the antiquities, which had been stolen from Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple near the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, dated to the 4th century.

Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the U.S. Navy and the U.S. State Department coordinated the return of these antiquities via the compassionate ship as part of the ship's scheduled humanitarian and civic assistance voyage to Southeast Asia in support of Pacific Partnership 2010. Returning the cultural heirlooms to the Cambodians was in perfect harmony with this goodwill tour, which the U.S. Navy initiated to strengthen U.S. international partnerships and reinforce mutual support between nations.

The joyous reunion of the Cambodian artifacts to their rightful owners was far from an overnight success. In fact, it took years of intensive investigation beginning with Operation Antiquity, which touched off related investigations. In Operation Antiquity, federal agents from ICE/HSI, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) worked together in a massive investigation that unveiled an interconnected web of individuals involved in the plundering of Southeast Asian ancient objects then smuggling and selling them within the U.S.

ICE/HSI Special Agent Michael Scott Crabb, who led this epic operation, puts the crime of stealing and selling historical and cultural treasures into perspective. "How would we, as U.S. citizens, feel if someone were to steal an original copy of the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence and sell to it to someone across the globe?" Another analogous hypothetical might be, 'How would Americans feel if someone sliced the head off of George Washington from Mount Rushmore and sold it to the highest bidder?'

The loss would be tremendous, and so it is with other nations, many of which are without the resources to investigate or conduct an adequate search to recover pieces that have been chipped off of their national heritage.

Thus, in 2003 when a letter arrived on the desk of the ICE assistant secretary from the Cambodian Embassy requesting ICE's help in recovering ancient artifacts belonging to the country of Cambodia that were being auctioned and sold over the Internet, ICE obliged.

Operation Antiquity initially focused on Robert Olson, a U.S. citizen and importer of Southeast Asian items. Olson worked with Cambodian and Thai "brokers." These brokers hired private "diggers" who visited ancient sites with the purpose of pillaging, sometimes cutting away friezes and other parts of a structure's ornamentation. Olson falsified documents as the goods were shipped into the United States. Olson was breaking several U.S. and international laws and bilateral agreements in his profit-making venture. His nearly 25-year scam was so prodigious that Crabb says Olson was responsible for Thailand's loss of one-third of its remnants from the ancient Ban Chiang culture.

But when the law caught up with Olson, federal agents, working undercover, discovered they had just scratched the surface. One of Olson's associates was a wealthy and well-traveled Wall Street financial analyst who was also cashing in on the theft and importation of Southeast Asian antiquities. Another buyer was a private museum owner who bought vast amounts of illicit items concealing them in containerized cargo shipments. One shipment authorities intercepted contained a 7th century Khumer sandstone head and a 2nd century Dong Son bronze container. Together these items were worth more than $35,000. But coming through U.S. customs, the smuggler declared the entire shipment as "handicrafts" worth $250.

The smuggling scheme not only involved undervaluing the worth of ancient items to pass them through U.S. customs, but inflating their value when the purpose was to donate an artifact to a museum and write it off as a charitable tax donation.

In January 2008, more than 400 federal agents from the ICE Special Agent in Charge (SAC) office in Los Angeles, the NPS and the IRS conducted a massive raid, sanctioned by search warrants issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office in California. Law enforcement officials surprised owners, curators, registrars and collection mangers from 16 museums and galleries in California and Illinois, interviewing them and examining their collections. Several people were indicted, one individual was prosecuted and thousands of objects were seized.

Operation Antiquity put museums all over the country on notice. "The case enlightened museums as to their acquisition policies," said Crabb. Some museums are now voluntarily bringing forth for examination pieces in their collection that may be of questionable origin. U.S. customs inspectors have also wised up to the tricks of the antiquity trafficking trade, and these officials have gained more expertise in how to catch this type of thief.

An unfortunate phenomenon in today's world is that historical and cultural artifacts that are looted and smuggled out of their home countries are often auctioned and sold in cyberspace, rapidly changing hands. But the Internet is no safe haven for criminals of any kind, including illegal traffickers of antiquities.

Some of the items recovered and returned via the USNS Mercy had been available for purchase on the Internet. ICE Special Agent Razmik Madoyan of SAC Los Angeles who led an Internet investigation that helped recover some of the artifacts, said "Sometimes people turn a blind eye to what they are purchasing and don't care about the provenance. If it looks good they buy it. But if these individuals are purchasing historical or cultural property that's been stolen, they are breaking U.S. and international laws." The red flag indicators of stolen artifacts, said Madoyan, "are an item's lack of provenance or provenance with nonspecific item descriptions or country of origin, such as "Babylonian items" or "the Middle East."

"ICE's Homeland Security Investigations goes the distance when it comes to investigating and tracking the true ownership of ancient treasures being traded and sold within the U.S.," said Herbert Kaufer, acting executive deputy assistant director of ICE International Affairs. "We'll hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes and use every law on the books against aspiring profiteers so they'll learn to keep their paws off historical and cultural heirlooms they have no right to acquire."

Operation Antiquity "was a tough case…very paper intensive and requiring a lot of travel," said Crabb. "We did it and we'll keep doing these investigations because it's the right thing to do."

Photos courtesy of Meghan Patrick, U.S. Navy.