May 17, 2007
Love for ancient art lands local man in jail
As executive director of the little-known California Museum of Ancient Art, Berman has attracted some of the world's premier Near Eastern scholars to deliver seminars on topics ranging from "The Epic of Gilgamesh" to the Dead Sea Scrolls to "Expansion of Trade and the Spread of the Alphabet."
May 21 brings "In the Beginning ... Creation Stories of the Ancient World" to Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a three-part creation series that continues May 30 and concludes June 11.
A week later, Berman is scheduled to receive his prison sentence of up to six years for tax fraud.
His crime was, Berman's lawyer said, caring too deeply about the museum he co-founded in 1983 and which lacks a physical building or Web site. Art pieces are kept in a Westside storage facility.
Berman is its sole employee, operating out of his North Hollywood apartment, and his desire to see it succeed motivated him to defraud the federal government of $263,000 by helping art donors, including himself, claim tax deductions to which they weren't entitled.
"His life is the museum," attorney Jason D. Kogan said. "He was trying to help the museum, not benefit himself."
That much seems clear. In January, days after entering the plea agreement, Berman called this reporter, then writing for the L.A. Daily News, and asked to meet that afternoon. He didn't mention his legal problems but was cheery and promotional -- "West of the Mississippi, there are very few serious collections of Near Eastern art. We are trying to fill that gap."
And to some extent, Berman, who was raised Orthodox and graduated from UC Berkeley, has done that, having gathered for the museum about 2,600 art pieces. They range from cuneiform tablets to sacred vases and religious statues that come from Anatolia, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant.
What got him in trouble was how he encouraged those donations. U.S. tax laws dictate that if someone donates a piece of art after owning it for a year, he can deduct from his taxes the appraised value -- but if he owns it for less than a year, he can only write off the purchase price, which for the donations to Berman's museum investigated by the IRS were often one-third the appraised value. Between 1997 and 2001, Berman helped donors claim the appraisal value when they weren't permitted on at least 11 tax returns, plus his own.
Berman has paid the quarter million in owed taxes and has tried to minimize the impact of his conviction on the museum. In an interview, Berman freely discussed the upcoming lecture series. But when asked about his June 18 court date with U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, he snapped and refused to continue the conversation.
"You ask me why I do what I do. I do it because I believe in what I do," he said. "This has nothing at all to do with my case."