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Her career revived, scholar turns tipster

Second of three parts

Roxanna Brown never saw the car that hit her.

The 36-year-old expert in Southeast Asian art was pulling her motorcycle out of a parking lot in Bangkok when the vehicle knocked her onto a busy road.

There she was repeatedly crushed under the wheels of a multi-ton rice truck. Then the truck driver backed up, apparently intending to roll over her again.

He was trying to avoid a lawsuit by finishing her off, she would later tell friends, but passersby pulled her out of the way.

The 1982 accident was the latest turn in an exotic life tinged by hardship. Brown had gone from Illinois farm girl to Vietnam War correspondent to leading authority on ancient ceramics. But her promising career had been sidetracked by an addiction to opium. While recovering in a Buddhist monastery, she'd fallen in love with a young Thai monk and settled in his poor village near Bangkok with their 1-year-old son.

Now she lay in the road with her legs, pelvis and internal organs crushed, her body burned from being dragged across asphalt.

With no insurance or savings, she was taken to a hospital with minimal sanitation. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, her mother, who had flown in from Illinois, ran daily to a pharmacy. The hospital had no medication.

Brown's right leg was partially amputated. Infections then forced doctors to cut farther and farther up the limb until all that was left was a stump.

Unable to speak, she wrote a note to her mother: "I am willing myself to die."

It would be six months until Brown was well enough to fly to Illinois, three years until she regained her health. For the rest of her life, she suffered terrible pain, migraines and buzzing in her ears, friends said.

"She came out of it literally flat," recalled Brown's longtime friend and fellow expatriate Patricia Cheeseman, who had met Brown in Laos in the 1970s. "She retained that flatness for years, and was covered in scars."

Brown returned to Thailand with her son, only to have her husband leave her.

"He wasn't able to tolerate looking at her with one leg," said Brown's cousin Karen Lindner, who visited several times. "It's a shameful thing there."

Brown moved to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. As a disabled single mother, she found daily life a struggle.

A pioneer in her field, she earned less than $200 a month teaching about ancient ceramics at Chiang Mai University, friends said. In the evenings, she worked at a small bar she had bought for extra income. It was called the Hard Rock Cafe -- though it was not part of the famous franchise, as she had been told when buying it.

She had a poorly fitting prosthetic leg, friends say, and was in and out of the hospital with infections.

Brown spent much of the next decade in pain, depressed and directionless.

Reviving a career

In the mid-1990s, as interest in Asian art surged in the U.S., Brown moved to Los Angeles, determined to revive her academic career.

She got a better-fitting prosthetic leg, a job as a medical transcriptionist to pay the bills and work doing art appraisals on the side.

Friends say Brown had begun to worry about money -- about being able to pay for college for her teenage son, who had stayed in Bangkok with relatives, and about growing older with no assets or savings.

With the encouragement of her longtime friend Robert Brown, a Southeast Asia scholar at UCLA (and no relation), Roxanna enrolled in the university's doctoral program at the age of 53.

Her focus was the Ming Gap, a little-studied period of 300 years when China blocked exports of its ceramics, fueling a boom in production across Southeast Asia. Brown's analysis of ceramics recovered from shipwrecks revolutionized the understanding of trade patterns in the region, colleagues said.

"We all admired her," said Barbara Gaerlan, assistant director of the Center for Southeast Asian studies at UCLA, "an older woman going back to graduate school with this amazing history."

While at UCLA, Brown fell into a like-minded community of Southeast Asia enthusiasts. They would occasionally gather for Buddhist rituals at the house of Jonathan and Cari Markell, owners of Silk Roads Gallery, a high-end home decor store on La Brea Avenue.

Among the guests were local museum officials, including Robert Brown, who became curator of Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2000, and David Kamansky, director emeritus of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

Another local Thai enthusiast was Robert Olson, a retired steelworker who had been importing ancient ceramics, bronze jewelry and stone tools since the 1980s. Olson brought in shipping containers filled with antiquities, which he sold from an Anaheim warehouse. He specialized in objects from Ban Chiang, a world heritage site in northeastern Thailand.

Roxanna Brown heard about Olson soon after she started at UCLA. Robert Brown had once taken his graduate students to study objects at the importer's warehouse, Olson has said. Kamansky says he visited the warehouse with Robert Brown while considering a joint exhibition of Olson's Thai material.

Roxanna Brown also visited Olson's warehouse several times. She saw remarkable things -- several bronze baskets, for instance, when only a few of that type were known to exist in the world, according to statements later attributed to her in federal affidavits.

Olson insisted to her that the antiquities had been imported legally. But he also chortled about getting them past Thai and U.S. customs officials, she later told authorities.

Brown was confident they had been smuggled out of Thailand, according to affidavits later filed by federal investigators.

At times, evidence of grave robbing was obvious. Brown told authorities some of Olson's ancient bronze bracelets were still attached to human arm bones.

Into the investigation

In 2002, a federal agent approached Roxanna Brown. He was investigating what appeared to be looted Southeast Asian antiquities and wanted Brown's expert advice.

She told the agent that the objects he asked about had probably been brought into the country by Olson, whom she described as the largest and perhaps only commercial importer of this kind in the country, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in July. She offered to help the agent further, saying she "firmly believed efforts should be made to stop archaeological looting" and "felt Olson and others should be held accountable."

For two years, from 2002 to 2004, Brown acted as an expert and occasional tipster for the government, the federal documents show. When asked to testify against Olson, however, she balked.

She offered a curious explanation: She had once brokered a deal between Olson and an antiquities dealer in Thailand involving bronze bells that the dealer had smuggled out of Cambodia. She did so, she told authorities, only to stop the cash-strapped dealer from selling off an even larger cache of "high quality" Thai antiquities.

In 2004, Brown received her doctorate and returned to Thailand, eager to embrace new opportunities.

After the wealthy founder of Bangkok University asked her to review his ceramics collection, Brown persuaded him to create a museum and name her director. She also began advising a Cambodian project near the ruins of Angkor Wat that trained locals to make pottery for sale as an alternative to looting.

"She cared very deeply about the preservation of antiquities in their home locations," said photographer David Hume Kennerly, an old friend. "She didn't want to see stuff shipped off around the world."

As Brown pursued her passion in Thailand, the smuggling investigation in the United States mushroomed.

Undercover operation

In the years since meeting with Brown, the federal agent had been working undercover as "Tom Hoyt," a wealthy technology entrepreneur interested in Asian art -- and tax breaks.

In fact, Hoyt worked for the National Park Service, where he'd spent 10 years going undercover at auctions, swap meets and art galleries in search of smuggled artifacts. While investigating the trade in Native American and pre-Colombian objects, he came across what appeared to be a major pipeline of looted Southeast Asian antiquities into the Los Angeles area, according to search warrant affidavits filed in January.

The court documents describe his penetration of the alleged smuggling and tax-fraud ring as follows:

Hoyt gained Olson's confidence and began buying Thai antiquities from him. The importer described his business in detail as the agent secretly recorded him.

Eventually, Olson introduced Hoyt to the Markells, who selected objects from Olson's warehouse and helped Hoyt donate them to local museums. In Hoyt's presence, Jonathan Markell created appraisals that inflated the value of the objects to get the donor a tax write-off.

To give legitimacy to the appraisals, he was using the electronic signature of a highly regarded expert: Roxanna Brown.

Brown was portrayed in the January affidavits as a victim of the scheme, taken advantage of by her friends the Markells, who allegedly used her signature without her knowledge.

In this and other instances, Hoyt donated the over-valued objects to four Southern California museums, some of whose staff accepted them even though they had reason to suspect their illicit origins, the affidavits allege.

In January 2008, hundreds of federal agents launched coordinated raids on LACMA, the Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei Museum in San Diego, plus nine other locations in California and Illinois.

The agents seized thousands of records and suspect antiquities. No arrests were made at the time. Olson denies any wrongdoing and the Markells through their attorney have declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Among the records seized from Olson, the alleged smuggler, was a file simply labeled "Roxanna."

Its contents suggested an entirely different side to Roxanna Brown.

jason.felch@latimes.com

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