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April 4, 2014

Friday, April 04, 2014 - , 1 comment

FBI reportedly seizes private collection of cultural artifacts of 91-year-old Donald C. Miller with any arrest or charge; retired FBI agent Virginia Curry and anthropologist Kathleen Whitaker add their perspective

The Indianapolis Star interviewed Miller in 1998.
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Diana Penner, a journalist for The Indianapolis Star reported in an article ("FBI seizes thousands of artifacts from rural Ind. home", April 3) published by USA Today (along with contributions from the Associated Press) that on Wednesday, April 2, FBI agents took:
"thousands" of cultural artifacts, including American Indian items, from the private collection of a 91-year-old man who had acquired them over the past eight decades. ... The Rush County man, Don Miller, has not been arrested or charged. Robert A. Jones, special agent in charge of the Indianapolis FBI office, would not say at a news conference specifically why the investigation was initiated, but he did say the FBI had information about Miller's collection and acted on it by deploying its art crime team. FBI agents are working with art experts and museum curators, and neither they nor Jones would describe a single artifact involved in the investigation, but it is a massive collection. Jones added that cataloging of all of the items found will take longer than "weeks or months." 
"Frankly, overwhelmed," is how Larry Zimmerman, professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis described his reaction. "I have never seen a collection like this in my life except in some of the largest museums." 
The monetary value of the items and relics has not been determined, Jones said, but the cultural value is beyond measure. In addition to American Indian objects, the collection includes items from China, Russia, Peru, Haiti, Australia and New Guinea, he said. The items were found in a main residence, in which Miller lives; a second, unoccupied residence on the property; and in several outbuildings, Jones said. The town originally was Iroquois land. The objects were not stored to museum standards, Jones said, but it was apparent Miller had made an effort to maintain them well. The aim of the investigation is to determine what each artifact is, where it came from and how Miller obtained it, Jones said, to determine whether some of the items might be illegal to possess privately. Jones acknowledged that Miller might have acquired some of the items before the passage of U.S. laws or treaties prohibited their sale or purchase. In addition, the investigation could result in the "repatriation" of any of the cultural items, Jones said. 
Dark Rain Thom, a Shawnee descendant who served on the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission under three governors, said the motives of such collectors vary, and that it's not uncommon for collections to come to light when an elderly person dies and descendants try to figure out what to do with artifacts. Often, she said, family members then quietly donate them to museums or arrange to return them to specific tribes — if that provenance can be determined. Some collectors are motivated by money, as the artifacts' sale can be lucrative, Thom said. But others with interests in archaeology or anthropology are motivated by a desire to understand the development of a culture through its art items and everyday implements. And others, Thom said, are in it for the thrill of discovery. The FBI and its partners might have a daunting task determining the origins and provenance of all of the items, Thom predicted. "It may be 30 years — or never — before they have it all cataloged."
The ARCA blog asked Virginia Curry, a retired FBI agent and a licensed private investigator, for additional perspective. Ms. Curry teaches art crime investigations with retired Scotland Yard officer Dick Ellis:
The United States Federal Code Title 18 Section 668. defines a Museum as: (1) ‘‘museum’’ means an organized and permanent institution, the activities of which affect interstate or foreign commerce, that— (A) is situated in the United States;(B) is established for an essentially educational or aesthetic purpose; (C) has a professional staff; and (D) owns, utilizes, and cares for tangible objects that are exhibited to the public on a regular schedule. (2) ‘‘object of cultural heritage’’ means an object that is—(A) over 100 years old and worth in excess of $5,000; or (B) worth at least $100,000. 
One might argue that Donald Miller's collection, in a rural area of Indiana satisfies the federal definition of a museum. While the affidavit in support of the search warrant on this 91-year-old man's home is not yet available on the Internet for review, it appears that there is no evidence that Mr. Miller is a physical threat or would cause harm to the artifacts he has so carefully maintained and displayed to his neighbors on request (on request, by the way, is as regular a schedule as one might ask for in such a rural Indiana community). There does not appear, at present, to be any indication that Mr. Miller is a danger to federal agents or that he would not have cooperated, if asked, in their investigation. Mr. Miller not only served his country on a highly important project at Los Alamos, but he also continued his life of service as a missionary. The artifacts he collected into his "Wunderkammer" were not only collected during his travel, but were also previously profiled in print media. Therefore, the "full corps press" (with an FBI Mobile Command Post) assault on this rural community appears to be extraordinary and an unnecessary show of force by the FBI and any other participating federal agency. I wonder if they contemplated entry on the home of the 91-year-old man with an FBI SWAT team? Regarding the suggestion that Miller’s collection was not maintained is "by museum standards" -- this is a qualification for accreditation of a museum by the AAM (American Association of Museums) and not a standard under federal law for the definition of a museum collection. I suspect that Mr. Miller might have been persuaded before this event to work with the FBI, or any other agency, and the same expertise the FBI will now have to employ to evaluate, inventory and collect this material in anticipation of an eventual legacy donation to another facility. Instead, this is an embarrassing and unnecessary show of force by the FBI to a community that is likely experiencing their first contact with the FBI.
The ARCA blog asked Dr. Kathleen Whitaker, former director, Indian Arts Research Center, School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, to add a museum professional’s perspective to this story:
Virginia is right, there is no info forthcoming on why the FBI chose to assault this home with so much force. A search warrant has yet to be revealed. I personally find this descent on, and intrusion into a private home a bit disconcerting. I guess the provocation is yet to be revealed, but the number of agents that descended on the site seems outrageously overdrawn. What did they expect from this 91-year-old man? Cannons and oozies? 
AAM standards that define what a museum should be, align somewhat with the federal code; and, of course there are many differences between the 'types’ of museums that are identified, goals, purpose, adequate resources and public engagement - hence differences in the application of standards for each type of facility. AAM was not set up to enforce legal matters the federal code was - so naturally there is a difference in intent. Mr. Miller's establishment aligns more with what AAM would define as an "art museum," although I am unsure what his tax status might suggest in terms of operation. But yes, he is the owner-staff, he shares his collection with the public (assuming by appointment), and he maintains the artifacts through exhibition in glass cases, etc., and provides identity labels for those items on display (according to visuals seen in news reports and video). It seems probable, however, he does not identify his establishment as a " public museum" but rather as a private collection that he willingly shares with others. Legally then, his establishment does not seem to be functioning/operating under any tax or other "code" or "law" (at least that I am, at this writing, aware of). It is unclear to me how old his artifacts REALLY are based on media hype, but a few professionals such as archaeologists, anthropologists and the like have been "called in" to help identify the collection. One might summarily assume, there are both old and ethno- and historically important pieces among the artifacts in this vast collection. All the specifics have yet to be determined. Whatever the outcome, such outrageous ideas that it could take "30 years" to catalogue all the material is just plain inaccurate! 
FBI involvement (if based on the collection alone) suggests the problem could involve violations of NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act], the Antiquity Act, The Indigenous Religious Freedom Act, Fish and Wildlife "feather" violations on artifacts, et al. Or perhaps the suggestion of illegal acquisition or transport across state and perhaps even country boundaries would mandate an FBI investigation - but not invasion! Usually collections of this magnitude are well known among professionals in the area, so I find surprising the local university professor was "frankly overwhelmed" by the collection's magnitude. It might be embarrassing to the university if it admitted knowledge of the collection's contents and it turns out there are violations. Finally, I have many more questions than answers. Primarily among them is: WHO informed the FBI? And WHY?
According to Frank Denzler reporting for the Rushville Republican: During his lifetime, Miller has traveled extensively throughout the world and is a known collector of Native American artifacts – a collection that encompasses not only his residence, but also a number of outlying buildings on his rural property.

Journalist Teresa Mackin included a video of Miller's collection during her report on WISHTV published on the station's website.

Jill Disis and Chris Sikich in Indiana reported for the IndyStar:
In rural Rush County, few are the people who have not heard of the house on 850 West — and the tales of the man who resides within. Some have seen the spectacles that pack the home, from the life-size Chinese terra-cotta figurine on the front porch to the seemingly authentic Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement. [...] But none of the stories friends and former colleagues shared with The Indianapolis Star on Thursday came close to explaining the latest mystery surrounding 91-year-old Don Miller, brought on by a throng of FBI agents that surrounded his house Tuesday.Why did they begin removing thousands of artifacts from Miller's home despite not charging him with a crime or placing him under arrest? And why, two days later, were they still there? "It's odd. The whole situation is odd," said Elizabeth Dykes, an acquaintance of Miller's who lives in Richmond. "I about flipped my lid yesterday when I saw this. What could he of all people have to hide?"
Paul Barford pointed out on his blog "Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues" that in an article authored by Andy Proffet in the Shelbynews on April 3, "FBI working with artifact collector to return items" that according to an FBI agent "Miller had contacted the FBI about returning the items, but couldn't elaborate on why Miller was looking to repatriate the artifacts now."


I recently spoke with several people personally involved in the operation and found no evidence for any "assault" or "SWAT" operation, only a good faith and cooperative effort by all parties (especially Mr. Miller and the FBI) to address an unprecedented and challenging case.