Arrested art historian dies in detention center
Woman charged with fraud
P-I STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES
A well-known art historian from Thailand who was indicted in a federal investigation into looted antiquities died Wednesday at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, apparently after a heart attack.
Roxanna Brown, a 62-year-old U.S. citizen, had been visiting a cousin in Seattle and was scheduled to speak at the University of Washington last weekend when she was arrested Friday. She was the first person arrested as part of a five-year, undercover investigation into smuggled Thai artifacts at some Southern California museums and galleries.
As is routine with all inmates upon booking, Brown was given a medical screening at the prison. A spokeswoman for the detention center did not disclose the status of that screening.
By Monday, Brown was too ill to appear in court, but did appear briefly Tuesday. She had been charged with one count of wire fraud, allegedly for allowing art collectors to use her electronic signature to overstate the value of items they donated to several Southern California museums. The collectors then claimed fraudulent tax deductions, investigators said.
The King County Medical Examiner's Office said an investigation into Brown's death was planned for Thursday.
Brown had been the director of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University, which holds more than 2,000 ancient ceramics. She had been lecturing worldwide on the significance that shipwrecked Asian ceramics have in detailing the histories of ancient kingdoms.
A proponent of proper excavation and documentation of artifacts, Brown told a Malaysian newspaper last year that antiques buyers should look at "published finds" only from specific sites.
"If there is nothing published, then the material is fake or has been looted, and (the buyer) is willfully participating in destroying history," she was quoted as saying.
It was a stark contrast to the recent charge leveled against her, in which federal agents raided several Southern California museums and a Los Angeles gallery in January. They were loooking for artifacts from Thailand's Ban Chiang archaeological site, one of the most important prehistoric settlements ever discovered in Southeast Asia.
An affidavit filed in the case said Jonathan and Cari Markell -- the owners of one of the California galleries -- had used Brown's electronic signature several times to falsify appraisal forms. In one case, an appraisal for items to be donated to the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena indicated Brown had inspected the items.
The Markells, who have not been charged, previously declined to comment about the investigation.
Bangkok University has denied that it smuggled antiquities, some of which came into the United States appearing as replicas, with "Made in Thailand" labels on them, according to the Bangkok Post.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns in Los Angeles said Brown was "one of many targets" of the inquiry. He declined to say how her death would affect the investigation.
Brown's brother, Fred Leo Brown, of Chicago, said his sister maintained her innocence. Although a cause of death had not been determined, he said he had been told his sister suffered a heart attack, which he suggested was the result of stress from the arrest.
"She wasn't in good health to begin with, but they definitely brought on the heart attack," he said.
Brown said his sister became interested in Southeast Asian art after visiting him in 1968 in Australia, where he was recovering from a Vietnam War wound. With a journalism degree from Columbia University, she soon made her way to Saigon, where she befriended many people in the international news corps, he said, and she traveled around Vietnam in the early 1970s visiting kiln sites where pottery was made.
She earned a master's degree in Asian art at Oxford University and lost one leg in an accident in Bangkok in 1980, he said. According to UCLA's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Brown holds a doctorate in art history from the university.
She is survived by one son, who lives in Bangkok, Fred Brown said.
P-I reporter Vanessa Ho contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.