Reactions to museum director's death

This story from the Bangkok Post repeats most of the details already released before, but also includes some comments from Roxanna Brown’s colleagues. There’s a general feeling of shock, as well as dismay that there wasn’t an opportunity for the truth to emerge.

Prison death
Bangkok Post, 16 May 2008

Prison death

The director of a Bangkok museum, a renowned Asian-antiquities expert, has died in a US jail after being arrested in Seattle by federal agents investigating illegal trafficking of pilfered Southeast Asian art.

Roxanna Brown, 62, the director of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University, was found dead about 2.30am on Wednesday (4.30pm in Bangkok), four days after she was arrested, Federal Detention Center spokeswoman Maggie Ogden said.

Ms Brown, a US citizen, was arrested last week in Seattle, where she was scheduled to speak at the University of Washington.

An autopsy was performed by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office on Wednesday. Results were not immediately available but her brother, Fred Brown, of Chicago, told The Associated Press she appeared to have had a heart attack.

Mr Brown said his sister maintained she was innocent, and he blamed the stress of her arrest for her death.

“She wasn’t in good health to begin with, but they definitely brought on the heart attack,” he said.

Emily Langlie, the spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office in Seattle, said Ms Brown was checked by medical staff members at the Federal Detention Center on Monday.

Ms Brown became interested in Asian art while a journalist covering the Vietnam War, and she rose to become one of the foremost authorities on the ancient-ceramics trade in Southeast Asia.

She was arrested at a Seattle hotel on Friday as she prepared to have dinner with academic colleagues.

Ms Brown, who lost a leg in an accident in 1980, was in a wheelchair and was suffering from flu-like symptoms severe enough to postpone her initial court appearance on Monday.

She appeared before a US magistrate briefly on Tuesday, and she was scheduled for another hearing on Wednesday to pave the way for her extradition to Los Angeles.

Assistant US Attorney Joseph Johns, the Los Angeles prosecutor heading the illegal-antiquities investigation, said Ms Brown was “one of many targets” of the probe. He declined to say how her death would affect the investigation.

She was a focal point of a widening federal probe that was launched with highly publicised raids on four Southern California museums in January.

Hours before her arrest on Friday she had been indicted on a federal wire fraud charge that accused her of inflating the value of the plundered antiquities.

She was the first person to be arrested in the investigation. Her apprehension surprised many who knew and respected her as “the epitome of the academic expert”, as one art historian told the Bangkok Post.

Federal investigators asserted that Ms Brown allowed her electronic signature to be placed on fake appraisal forms that inflated the value of pieces from Ban Chiang archaeological site that were sent to Southern California museums. The phony appraisals allowed collectors to claim fraudulent tax deductions, according to authorities.

Ms Brown had been a resident of Bangkok for over 30 years.

“It is a big loss to our field. This case is so sudden and rather bizarre,” said Erbprem Vatcharangkul, an archeologist at the Fine Arts Department and adviser to Ms Brown’s doctoral thesis on shipwreck ancient ceramics.

Burin Singtoaj, her subordinate and also curator at the museum in Bangkok, said he was shocked and saddened.

“The saddest part is that she did not have a chance to defend herself,” said Mr Burin, who worked with her for five years. He found the allegation against her confusing.

US federal agents charged her in connection with looted artifacts from Ban Chiang, a significant prehistoric settlement near Udon Thani. Ms Brown, however, was not an expert on Ban Chiang.

She was the authoritative figure on Southeast Asian ancient ceramics – a much later period than Ban Chiang.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

3 thoughts on “Reactions to museum director's death”

  1. I hadn’t seen Roxanna Brown for years, but I simply can’t believe she was involved in any smuggling arrangement. It just wasn’t like her.

    The poor woman had more than her misfortune in life. Her nearly fatal accident happened in 1982, just outside the Dusit Thani Hotel where the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand used to be located. She was leaving the Dusit Thani car park on her motorcycle, when she was stuck and knocked down by a tuk-tuk (motor samlor). Before she could get up, she was run over by a big semi! The wheels crushed her chest, puncturing a lung, and also damaged her legs so badly that one had to be removed. It was almost a miracle that she survived.

    It took her many years to recover, which makes it so sad this had to happen.

    Goodbye, Roxanna. You were a nice lady.

  2. Thank you Charles.

    I’ve not met Dr Brown myself, and it was a shock to hear her name implicated in this scandal, which was something you would not hear about someone with credentials such as hers. I think we have lost a highly respected scholar who has contributed a great deal to our understanding of Southeast Asian Archaeology.

  3. The death of Dr. Roxanna Brown in prison in Seattle is a huge loss not just to her family but to everyone involved in the field of Southeast Asian ceramics. Her thorough and original research and the work that she has done in recent years as the founding curator of the Southeast Asian ceramic museum have made an enormous contribution to the appreciation and understanding of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai artifacts. No one else in any country has done as much.

    By rights she ought to have been contemplating a retirement full of honours, respect and gratitude. Instead, through the carelessness of government officials in her own country, she has been forced to endure a lonely, humiliating and undoubtedly painful death.

    I have studied the investigation that has been going on in Los Angeles in detail and I have read the affidavits and search warrants that were filed by the US Inland Revenue agents who have been conducting this five-year investigation. It is my considered opinion that they have been on a very long, expensive and futile fishing expedition, pursuing a few slightly shady tax dodges while doing immense damage to the museum community as a whole.

    Now that damage has reached Thailand. It is one of the tragic ironies of this scenario that the US Inland Revenue Service, while trying, quite hypocritically, to portray itself as the defender of Thai culture, has taken away the life and destroyed the career of one of the best friends this culture ever had.

    Let’s hope that Dr. Brown’s death will not have been completely in vain, and that this ill-advised witch hunt will be called off.

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