Damage to artifacts is one reason for government crackdown on museums

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Recent raids on museums in Southern California have stirred much questioning in the art world about why three federal agencies would devote four years to investigating what seems to be low-level smuggling and penny-ante tax fraud.

Yet tax experts say that the pattern of deceit outlined in court papers — appraising art objects for amounts just below a threshold that sets off higher scrutiny — is frequently investigated by the criminal enforcement arm of the Internal Revenue Service.

And a scholar who aided in the investigation argues that the modest dollar value of the objects — mostly artifacts from Southeast Asia that the authorities say were probably looted — is vastly eclipsed by the damage that looters wreak at archaeological sites, adding urgency to the inquiry.

The scholar, Joyce C. White, director of the Ban Chiang Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, said that the items smuggled and sold in the United States tend to be those that are intact, and that for each intact item removed there were doubtless many broken ones. When properly excavated, she said, the ensemble of items establishes the date of the intact artifact and yields countless details about historical and social context.

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