Disturbing the post-holiday quiet in Balboa Park one early January morning, federal agents swarmed into the Mingei International Museum.
The agents ordered museum workers to escort them through corridors and galleries, pointing out anything thought to have originated from Ban Chiang, an ancient culture in Thailand. They pulled 67 items: artifacts, jewelry and pottery.
Federal agents commanded the museum to whisk those items from public view and lock them away in storage. Museum staff plucked their images from museum literature, too, as if the items had vanished from the collection.
The 67 items are still sitting there, hidden, three-and-a-half years later.
The raid revealed publicly a years-long investigation into an alleged smuggling chain that tied the Mingei and several other Southern California museums to potentially illegally looted artifacts from the Thai archaeological site. The dramatic nature of the raid thrust the usually under-the-radar museum into the limelight. Under that glare, the Mingei and other museums defended their practices and appeared shocked by the suggestion their collection practices were untoward.