Roxanna Brown and the art fraud mystery

What kind of royal screw-up led to Roxanna Brown’s death? Details of the ill-fated detention of the esteemed Dr Brown is recounted in the Seattle Times, with disturbing and sad revelations over how she was denied medical care and attention which led to her untimely and unnecessary death. (Thanks to Black Rose Press for the link)

Was Roxanna Brown an Art-World Fraud?
Seattle Times, 29 October 2008

Brown slid the chair like a walker as she moved across the floor of the hulking eight-story prison. Then, as inmates remember it, she stumbled and fell in front of a corrections officer.

“The officer watched this happen and simply gave her dirty looks,” Bowler recalls. She and another inmate came to Brown’s aid, Bowler says, lifting the respected scholar and dragging her into the showers. They were worried about her survival, Bowler says.

At least someone was. Brown was brought into the detention center on one leg and five days later carried out foot first. The American-born, Bangkok-based museum director had survived Vietnam as a war correspondent, hanging with the likes of David Halberstam and Ted Koppel, and had been close to death after losing her right leg in the wake of a motorbike crash in Thailand in the ’80s. But it was from a modern American prison that the globetrotting Southeast Asian art historian would emerge in a body bag on May 14, 2008. Twelve days earlier, she had turned 62.

In dire need of emergency care, Brown died about seven hours after inmates say she collapsed in front of the officer. Inmates say they, not the detention center staff, went to her aid in her final hours—they had to support Brown’s head the way you “support an infant’s,” Bowler says, to feed her antacid. Federal officials dispute the prisoners’ versions, and contend that Brown, who was apparently the first inmate known to die unexpectedly at the 10-year-old detention center, had showed initial signs only of a minor gastrointestinal “bug.”

To be fair, the report also highlights how she may have gotten herself arrested in the first place: by freely letting her name be used in art appraisals, similar to blank cheques. It turns out some of these subsequent appraisals were fraudulent to get higher tax breaks.

The investigation pushed on. The feds found new documents during the January raids that caused them to believe that Brown not only was in on the fraud scheme but had herself smuggled Burmese art into the U.S. They claimed there was evidence that six years earlier she had sold some antiquities to a man investigators believe was a smuggler. Additionally, gallery owner Markell had asked Brown in 2007 to sign a half-dozen blank appraisal forms for his future use. Markell, in an e-mail, “stated that he would be sending her $300 for using her, ‘as it were’, as the appraiser,” since, due to recent federal rule changes, he couldn’t sign an appraisal himself.

“If you are nervous about doing this,” he wrote, “please realize that Republicans are still in office, the IRS does not have enough personnel to review small-time appraisals, and the appraisals are very well written and will never be challenged even if they do.”

“No problem!” Brown responded. “I am delighted to be your partner in this.”

The feds suspected Brown knew Markell allegedly inflated his valuations, thus lending her signature made her party to the scam. Brown’s family says she was just doing a favor for the Markells, who were friends and who even witnessed Brown’s 2001 will, according to records in King County Superior Court. (The will is now in probate. No value is given for Brown’s estate, but her brother says she was poor.)

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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.

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