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.
Also Monday, Markell and his 68-year-old wife, Cari — who operated the now-defunct Silk Roads Gallery in the 100 block of North La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles for 10 years — were sentenced to probation for operating a related tax evasion scheme in which the couple “packaged” and sold smuggled artifacts to give clients tax write-offs when the items were donated to local museums.
A $1,500 “package” typically included antiquities from Ban Chiang, Thailand, along with false sales invoices to reflect an earlier sales date, and a fraudulently inflated $5,000 appraisal that contained a bogus expert’s signature, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns.
As a component of the defendants’ plea agreement, the judge ordered the couple to pay $25,000 to repatriate and return dozens of stolen antiquities seized in 2008 from their home and gallery to Thailand, Cambodia and other countries of origin.
The “enormous” number of archeological pieces taken and trafficked by the Markells and others were “devastating to the archeology of Thailand,” Dr. Joyce White, executive director of the Institute for Southeast Asian Archeology in Philadelphia, told the court.
Todd Swain, a special agent with the National Park Service, testified that he went undercover as a businessman and art collector to meet with the Markells — at one point in the boardroom of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena — to discuss purchasing a “package,” which would then be used as a museum donation in order to obtain a tax write-off.
Video and audio clips of Swain’s meetings with the couple in 2006 and 2007 were played for the court.
Pregerson said certain museums had entered into deferred prosecution agreements, with the institutions promising not to blindly “accept” documentation without close scrutiny.
The judge said Markell’s prison sentence “will send a message to what I think is a community that will pay attention,” referring to art administrators and artifact dealers.
“On so many levels,” illegal excavation and artifact theft is “just wrong,” Pregerson said.
Jonathan Markell’s attorney, Marilyn Bednarski, unsuccessfully argued for a probationary sentence for her client, telling the court that the couple were now near poverty, living off social security payments, and had been forced to take in boarders.
However, Johns pointed to a pre-sentence investigation report on the couple which determined that they had about $1.4 million in assets.
Pregerson gave Markell until Feb. 16 to begin serving his sentence.
— Wire reports
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