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MEETINGS 2008


302nd Meeting -Tuesday, June 10th 2008

A Tribute to the late Roxanna M. Brown (1946-2008)
Given by Patricia Cheesman and John Shaw


Present: David Salisbury, Pusadee Salisbury, Guy Cardinal, Derrick Titmus, Ken Dyer, Glynn Morgan, Liz Coughlan, Annette Kunigagon, Hans Bänziger, Louis Gabaude, Sommai Premchit, Bonnie Brereton, Wirat Poomasree, Otome Klein, Suriya Smutkupt, John Cadet, Noi Kanokwan Mibunlue Cadet, Marjorie Mercke, Oliver Hargreave, Bodil Blokker. An audience of 20.

During her tribute, Patricia Cheesman showed photographs of Roxanna from her early childhood, through her life to just before her death, and a short DVD of Roxanna at Bangkok University's Southeast Asia Museum. John Shaw had brought an extensive collection of books on Asian ceramics, including those written by Roxanna, and a collection of ceramics which he used to illustrate his presentation, and to show the difference between fake and authentic ceramics.

Patricia Cheesman: First I would like to thank the Alliance Française and the INTG for organizing this tribute to Roxanna Brown and to all of you for coming tonight. I am most grateful to Khun Jimmy Buntien from the office of Khun Surat Osathanugrah for rushing the photographs and video from Bangkok University's Southeast Asian Museum (SEACM) showing Roxanna at her workplace and to Roxanna's brother, Fred Leo Brown, for some of the photographs which I am showing tonight. Fred has posted several videos on "you-tube: Roxanna M. Brown" for those of you that would like to follow this up. Thank you to the many colleagues world-wide who have been rallying to support Roxanna's innocence, in particular Professor Charles Keyes, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and International Studies, University of Washington and past president of the American Association of Asian Studies who prepared a petition to the federal authorities; Caverlee Cary and members of the Vietnam Studies Group for writing a letter of condolence to Roxanna's family and Dr. Justin McDaniel who is helping the family spread the word about Roxanna's wonderful life and tragic death.

I first met Roxanna in 1977 when I invited her to come to Laos to look at some of the ancient ceramics that had been found there. I was working with the UN on ceramics development projects at the time and wanted to research the traditional ceramics of the region so as to base my teaching on Lao historical art forms. At that time no official archeological excavations had been made and the few pieces that were available had been dug from a couple of sites in Vientiane and Luang Prabang by the local people or simply found on the surface. Several dozen pieces were in a collection at the ceramics centre where I taught and I wanted Roxanna to see them. She had just published her book called "The Ceramics of South-East Asia - Their Dating and Identification." and I was impressed by her knowledge.

We became friends very quickly and seemed to enjoy the same interests in ceramics, music, reading material and entertainment and we believed in the goodness of humanity. We had both experienced Asia from the grass roots level and were at home here. She felt she had been Asian in a previous lifetime, even before she became a Buddhist. She was very beautiful, petite and full of energy with bright blue eyes and dark golden hair, which she sometimes dyed black to look more Asian. Although she loved to party, Roxanna was a very private person. She once told me that she had learnt not to "wear her heart on her sleeve" (a common defect of Westerners in Asian eyes) when she was a teenager. She had a very high IQ and was taunted by her classmates for it, especially the boys, so she decided to keep her opinions to herself and start dating. Her quiet nature gave her an immense presence and although she seemed reserved, she sheltered a quiet inner strength that saved her life later on and earned her respect among her Asian colleagues.

Roxanna was born in Illinois, USA, on a chicken farm owned by her father whom she feared for his temper and old fashioned ideas of a woman's place in society. She first came to Asia in 1968 after she had graduated from Columbia University at age 21. With a degree in journalism she headed for Vietnam where her brother, Fred Leo, had been serving in the US army and there she earned a living as a foreign correspondent and taught English. She went into villages and war zones as the youngest correspondent on location at the time. Roxanna was a very brave and compassionate person.

Her compassion for humanity was deepened by her wartime experiences and she witnessed events that evolved into a great love for the Vietnamese people. It was during this time that she first came across kiln sites and ceramics in the Vietnam bush that became her passion and subject for scholarship. From 1970 to 1975 she was based in Cambodia as a correspondent and continued her personal research in ceramics without any outside funding. At the same time she enrolled for a Master's degree at Singapore University (from 1971 - 1973) and studied under the famous art historian Professor William Willetts. She was one of his favorite students as she fulfilled his criteria of having "boundless enthusiasm, personal ambition, tenacity, intellectual curiosity, the ability to sacrifice personal comfort and a natural flair."

Her book was an expansion of her Master's thesis on the identification and dating of South-East Asian Ceramics and Professor Willets remained her mentor until his passing some years later. In 1975 she moved to Hong Kong and became assistant editor of the prestigious magazine 'Arts of Asia' and in 1979 she launched the first International Asian Antiques Fair together with two partners. It was an enormous success and brought together Oriental art dealers and collectors from around the world to Hong Kong.

If wealth and comfort had been Roxanna's goals in life she would have continued and succeeded in the corporate world and given up her treks into the jungles of Asia. But in the late 1980s she started researching Thai and Lao ceramic sites and met Jo Ngerntongdee in Bangkok, a tall, dark and handsome Thai man of Mon origins. They were deeply in love and married soon after, but the foreign community were shocked that he was so many years her junior and from a totally different social class. She moved to Bangkok and became editor of 'Living in Thailand' magazine. She published my first article on Lao Textiles and continued to encourage me to research this subject until her death. She was my mentor and unofficial research advisor and I contributed to her research in a very small way with my knowledge of ceramic technology. I lost touch with her temporarily when I moved to Australia in 1981, just before her son Jaime was born.

Life seemed good in those days but fate played an evil hand in early 1982 when Roxanna was knocked off her motor bike and crushed by a ten ton truck. She remembered the whole horror of it vividly throughout her life. The truck driver, on seeing that she was not dead had backed up to finish the job, as is not uncommon in Thailand, but she was able to roll her flattened body to the side of the road in time. By a miracle, eye witnesses noted the number plate of the truck and took her to hospital. There she was left for dead until an intern noticed her hand twitch and the work on her smashed body began. All her ribs and internal organs were crushed but her head was uninjured due to a good helmet and unbelievable luck. She had to have one leg amputated above the knee and was in a coma for many months. The prolonged effect of the antibiotics and pain killers on her system left her with horrendous migraines and an incurable buzzing in her ears. It took her 3 years to recover enough to walk and often she would tell me that it was the love and joy she received from her son Jaime that had saved her life.

As if this ordeal was not enough, she awoke from her coma to find that her best friend (a foreigner) and her Thai lawyer had made a deal with the trucking company and back-dated the records of the truck ownership to a poor farmer in Phitsanuloke. When she was awarded 4 million baht damages by a Thai court, she was unable to claim a penny of it. Handicapped, depressed and penniless she returned to the States where her brother and mother nursed her back to health. As soon as she was able, she returned to Bangkok with Jaime, limping on a prosthetic leg and started work at her old editing job. Her bravery and resilience at this time was amazing. I do not know many people who would have been able to continue so courageously under such circumstances. She was in great pain as the prosthetic leg was bad fitting and caused heat rash, not to mention the blisters and infections for which she was often hospitalized. At home she used a wheelchair but found it difficult to get around in Bangkok, which even to this day is not wheelchair friendly.

In 1986 she and Jaime moved to Chiang Mai after much coaxing from me. Roxanna's self-confidence was at an all-time low but with an invitation from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Chiang Mai University she started teaching ceramics history as part of the Southeast Asian Art and Culture course in the Thai Art section which was the brain-child of Ajarn Vithi Panichapant. She often mentioned to me that this rescued her and the community of the art school was a great support for her psychologically. She continued to teach there part-time, even after she had left Chiang Mai.

Roxanna was a convenor of the INTG here and was very happy in Chiang Mai but her income was barely sufficient to pay the school fees for Jaime and her home and medical bills. She was taking a lot of sleeping pills and pain killers to help quiet the terrible noises in her head and the pain that wracked her body. She was covered in scars from her accident that never fully healed and her bones were very fragile. Nevertheless she opened the Hard Rock Café near Thapae Gate for added income and was well known for her humor and generosity. Unfortunately her trusting nature was often taken advantage of. I remember she once wanted to buy a tuk-tuk but the man that took her final payment to the suppliers drove off with it, never to be seen again. So instead of being driven around town in her own tuk-tuk, she had a motor bike re-modeled with three wheels, a first in Chiang Mai, and she could be seen biking around, come rain or shine. She loved her bike and once mobile, she was unstoppable.

She had been fitted with a comfortable leg and given good support equipment by a company that she assisted in their designs of walking sticks, wheel chairs and other support equipment for the handicapped. This made an enormous difference to her life. Her new-found confidence brought her new aspirations and she moved to the US to take her Ph.D., which was her life's ambition. Her dissertation at UCLA was on marine archeology which became a main focus for her work from then onwards. She traveled from Indonesia to Malaysia and Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore with ease and lectured at conferences world-wide.

It was at a seminar at the Princess Sirindhorn Centre in Bangkok organized by the Toyota Foundation in year 2000 that she met Khun Surat Osathanugrah, founder of the Bangkok University. He gave her the opportunity she had been waiting for, to curate one of the largest collections of ceramics in Southeast Asia and edit a newsletter dedicated to the study of ceramics of the region. The museum was unofficially opened in 2002 and Roxanna gave workshops and watched over the museum's 2000 pieces with great pride. Her integrity and knowledge were impeccable and her articles in the museum's newsletter would make a fine publication.

Roxanna's favorite colours were red and black and I was privileged enough to dress her. She always loved to be stylish and invented a look that became her own with a long fitted top made of silk or cotton over black pants and a short jacket for warmth. This gave her the cover-up she wanted as well as an opportunity to enjoy beautiful hand-woven Thai fabrics and support the weavers. We wove special fabrics for her and she loved them. This was her only self indulgence and so it came as a great shock to me that she was accused of fraud in antiques which is the world of the rich and corrupt. Not only did her financial situation show clearly that she was not receiving dishonest money but she of all people was such a sincere and honest person it is hard to know why the US authorities went after her. She was well aware and critical of others whose fraudulent research had brought job advancement and financial gain and knowing her the way I did, I have not a single doubt of her innocence. The cruelty of this final insult to her reputation is compounded by her extraordinary life and state of her physical health. I have been told by a person familiar with the judicial system in the US that she may have been used to reach the real crooks and was just a pawn in their game. On Friday, May 9th this year Roxanna was arrested in Seattle, Washington and she died in custody 6 days later.

The circumstances of her arrest have been summarized by Professor Charles Keyes in his petition to the federal detention center in Seattle, Washington and I quote:

"Dr. Brown had been invited to present a paper, "The Sea Trade from China to Southeast Asia," at a conference on "Maritime Asia in the Early Modern World" sponsored by the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Washington on May 10th. Dr. Brown arrived in Seattle on May 8th and made her way to the Watertown Hotel in the University district. On May 9th Professor William Lavely, the organizer of the conference, went to pick up Dr. Brown at the hotel to take her to a dinner for conference participants. When he called her room, she told him she was being arrested.

Professor Lavely reports (in an email, dated May 21st, 2008) that he encountered the arresting officers who identified themselves as Federal Agents. He was able to talk briefly with Roxanna who told him that she knew the arrest was about "that thing in Los Angeles. I made a mistake. I faxed my signature." She also asked Professor Lavely to tell another participant in the conference who was from Thailand that she would not be able to return with her. When he checked with the hotel later, he was informed that she had checked out.

Dr. Brown, according to the Seattle Post- Intelligencer (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/363131_antiquities15.html), "was the first person arrested as part of a five-year, undercover investigation into smuggled Thai artifacts at some Southern California museums and galleries."
The primary target for this investigation appears, according to a search warrant issued on January 19, 2008 to Bonnie L. MacKenzie, a special agent of the Internal Revenue Service, to be Jonathan Markell, and his wife, Cari Markell, who run Markell Imports, 145 North Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036. These documents include two sections in which it is asserted that documents prepared for the Markells by Dr. Brown are recognized by the law enforcement authorities to be forgeries. A story in the Seattle Times (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004409948_smuggled13.html), states that Dr.Brown was "accused of allowing her electronic signature to be used on appraisal forms for items that were donated at inflated prices to several Southern California museums so collectors could claim fraudulent tax deductions." A subsequent newspaper report indicates that she was "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" (Seattle Post- Intelligencer, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/363131_antiquities15.html). Although Dr. Brown was arrested, the Markells who were the primary focus of the investigation have yet to be charged.

After her arrest Dr. Brown was taken to the Federal Detention Center at Seatac, a suburb of Seattle which includes the SEATAC (Seattle-Tacoma) airport. "Michael Filipovic, a public defender appointed to represent Brown temporarily in Seattle, said he did not know whether she had hired an attorney to fight the federal charges in California. He declined to comment on the allegations in the indictment." (Seattle Times, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004409948_smuggled13.html). Dr. Brown was to appear in court on Monday, May 12th, but she was, according to newspaper reports (Seattle Post- Intelligencer,
http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/363131_antiquities15.html) too ill to appear. It was not initially said what her illness was or whether she was receiving treatment for it. On Tuesday, May 13th, she did appear in court.

She died on Wednesday, May 14th at the Detention Center. In an article on May 14th the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that she had died "apparently after a heart attack". However, after an autopsy carried out by the King County Medical Examiner's Office, the cause of death was said to be "a perforated gastric ulcer" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/363402_antiquities17.html). "Maggie Ogden, a spokeswoman for the Federal Detention Center, said Š all inmates coming into the facility are screened by medical staff, but she declined to speak specifically about Brown's case. Brown's death is under investigation, she said." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/363402_antiquities17.html)."

The questions that Professor Keyes asked in the petition may be ones you all have and that we cannot answer:

  1. What opportunity was Dr. Brown given after her arrest to seek legal counsel other than the public defender appointed by the court?
  2. Did the charges justify her being held in the detention center rather than released on bail?
  3. Why was Dr. Brown arrested while the Markells have yet to be charged?
  4. What medical care was given to Dr. Brown when it was found that she was ill while in custody of the Federal Detention Center?
  5. Did she request medical or other attention at any time?
  6. Was she consulted about medications she took on a regular basis and, if so, were efforts made to secure these medications?
  7. Why was a diagnosis of a heart attack given to the public before the cause of death was actually known?
  8. What contact was she permitted with the outside?

This petition was signed by over 460 people, most of whom were academics and colleagues of Roxanna's.

I personally wish to extend my deepest sympathies to Roxanna's family at this time of sorrow. Her life was dedicated to finding out the truth of the past but it seems we may be robbed of the truth of what happened to her in Seattle. All charges against Roxanna have been dropped but her family has yet to be officially notified of her death. The few Americans I have spoken to all seem to see her case as quite typical of the injustices that are being experienced today in the "Land of the Free". Her brother is pressing charges in a "wrongful death" lawsuit. There will be a Buddhist cremation on July 1st 2008 and the memorial service for all family and friends will be on July 2nd at Forest Lawn Funeral Home, Seattle. Her remains will be brought to Bangkok where it is expected that she will be given a fine memorial service fitting for one of the world's leading Southeast Asian art historians.

John Shaw: Patricia's tribute to the memory of Roxanna has said it all. I would just like to set Roxanna's contribution to the study of South-East Ceramics in context. The first reports of ceramics of a distinct type being found at Sawankaloke began appearing in the 1880's. The Crown Prince visited the Sukhothai town kilns in 1909 and finally Reginald le May classified the wares in 1933. Two years later a paper was read at the Siam Society on the discovery of kilns at Kalong by Phraya Nakorn Pra Ram. In 1901 Amonier reported on the kilns at Mount Kulen in Cambodia. French scholars studied kilns in Vietnam in the 1920's and the first exhibition was held in Paris in 1931. Nothing was reported from Burma or Laos. Several burial sites were excavated in the Philippines by Otley Beyer and in Indonesia by Van Orsoy de Flines, all of which yielded quantities of Chinese and S.E. Asian ceramics.

Then came the war. Work began again in the 1950's. Groslier wrote of Khmer ceramics in 1953, though only in passing as all attention was directed to the wonders of Angkor Wat. Argence wrote of Vietnamese ceramics in 1958. Spinks published his findings on Thai ceramics, first in 1965 and then again in1978. Ban Chiang was discovered in 1966. Still no reports from Laos or Burma. The main interest was again in Indonesian and Philippine burial sites and many excellent private collections such as that of Locsin were built up.

In 1971 Professor William Willetts published his definitive catalogue for an exhibition of South-East Ceramics in Singapore. At the same time he undertook to supervise the research for a Master's degree of a student called Roxanna Brown. So began her career. Her first book, based on her thesis, was published by Oxford University Press in 1977. It is, perhaps, worth reminding ourselves of what was happening in the region at this time. Saigon fell in 1975 and it was some ten years later before the situation began to return to normal. In 1975, too, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, peace began to return in 1991. Laos gradually began to open up in the 1980's and finally joined ASEAN in 1991. Burma has remained Burma.

In spite of all this turmoil and in spite of her horrendous accident, in 1985 Roxanna continued her studies and the revised version of her book, 'The Ceramics of South-East Asia - Their Dating and Identification,' appeared in 1988. The book contained several major new developments - the discovery of Khmer kilns at Ban Kruat in the northeast of Thailand in 1975; the discovery of the Tak Hilltop Burial Sites along the Thai-Burmese border in 1984; the work of Don Hein at the Sisatchanalai kilns in the 1980's; the finding of large quantities of Guangdong wares in the Philippines in the late 1970's; the extensive work on the 150 shipwrecks found in the waters off Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

The study of the ceramics found in these shipwrecks was to become the most important part of Roxanna's life, she wrote her Ph.D. thesis at UCLA on 'The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in South-East Asia.' and, after graduating with a Bachelor's degree at the age of 21 became Doctor Brown at the age of 58 in 2004.

Before closing I would like to tell a few anecdotes that reflect on the dangers of setting yourself up as an expert. Willy Willetts tells the story of how he was once approached by a woman and asked to give his opinion on a Ming vase that she was about to buy. He told her that it was a fake. The woman therefore cancelled her planned purchase, whereupon the seller sued Willetts.

On another occasion, Dick Richards, curator of the museum in Adelaide, and I were shown beautiful photographs of Sukhothai and Northern Thai ceramics by a Bangkok dealer and were asked to write a preface for his planned book. When the book came out we saw, to our horror, that some 70% of the pieces were fakes - and we had endorsed them! And on another occasion, my wife and I were arrested on instructions from the Fine Arts Department for watching villagers dig at Kalong (and, I must admit, buying ceramics from them). Laws regarding the purchase and collection of antiques are often difficult to follow and, of course, vary from country to country.

It is just not possible to conceive that Roxanna was involved in anything that warranted her arrest by the American Federal authorities.

Finally I would like to suggest that our group might consider cooperating with Bangkok University to publish a memorial book for Roxanna based of the 27 editions of her Newsletter that appeared since 2004 on the internet.

If the worth of a person's life is valued not by a single failure, or a solitary success, but by the contribution they make, then Roxanna had lived a truly worthy life.

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