( dpa ) - Federal agents raided four prominent museums in southern California in a search for artifacts illegally smuggled out of Thailand, Myanmar, China and Native American sites in the US, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.
The coordinated raids on the museums involved hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts smuggled by wealthy dealers, who obtained illegally obtained inflated appraisals for the items and then donated them in return for tax write-offs.
No arrests have yet been made in connection with the raids, which were the culmination of a five-year undercover investigation.
But the paper reported that searches of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and Mingei International Museum in San Diego appeared to be the last step before several suspects are charged. The report also said that the museums continued to pursue objects even though they had reason to believe they were illegal.
The scandal is the second major antiquities disgrace to hit US museums in recent years following claims from Italy and Greece that major American museums - most prominently the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles - purchased art that had been stolen from and smuggled out of those countries.
The Getty agreed last year to return 40 of its most prized objects, following similar moves by museums in Boston and New York. The Getty's former antiquities curator is on trial in Rome, accused of knowingly buying looted art, a charge she denies.
The dozens of federal agents who raided the museums Thursday provided detail warrants that allowed them to search the museums' galleries, offices, storage areas and computer archives. They were looking for objects and records related to the primary targets of the investigation: an alleged art smuggler, Robert Olson, and the owner of a Los Angeles Asian art gallery, Jonathan Markell.
The warrants also indicated that prosecutors have carefully laid a foundation for the possible indictment of museum staffers allegedly complicit in the looting schemes - which would be a first under American law, experts told the newspaper.
According to the warrants, Olson and Markell told the undercover investigator they regularly bought Thai antiquities from looters and smugglers, sometimes smuggling them personally.
They then sold them to clients with forged appraisals that inflated the value of the objects by as much as 400 per cent and allegedly helped these clients donate the objects to local museums, which provided a tax write off at the inflated value. The scheme appears to have spanned the last decade.
The charges could include receiving stolen property, import violations and tax fraud.