Sunday, 29 March 2015

Collector Beware: The importance of your Documentation Assuring Title

Don Miller, the Indiana collector, 91, died Sunday, nearly a year after federal agents surrounded his rural Rush County home and began removing thousands of artefacts ("FBI Examines Antiquities at Rural Indiana Home"  PACHI, 3 April 2014;' see also "What a Collector Had in His Cellar"  PACHI, 7 May 2014). Officials at the time cited a desire to catalogue the artefacts and return any that had been illicitly obtained to their countries of origin.
Miller never faced any charges related to his collection. No lawsuits were filed against him in the year since the seizure. [...] after his death, progress of the federal investigation remains shrouded in mystery. FBI Special Agent Drew Northern declined to comment about the case Tuesday night. Officials from the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis anthropology department, which is assisting the FBI in identifying and preserving the artifacts, also would not comment. But a legal expert told The Star it could take years, if not decades, before experts can sort out the legalities of the thousands of objects seized by the government. "Even just figuring out which ones are illegally possessed in the United States is an enormous task when he's purchased them over so many years, so you can see why this is such a difficult problem to solve," said David B. Smith, a Virginia-based attorney with a background in asset forfeiture. "Without his help, it's just going to be enormously difficult to figure out which ones he legitimately purchased, which are legal and which ones aren't," Smith said. "It's a huge problem."
Of course, there will have been paperwork, wouldn't there? Any collector who is intent on "preserving" these remains of the past will have documented the accessions properly establishing title and to sort out precisely these sorts of problems on their demise.
"Here's the problem," Smith said. "The illegal extraction is usually done by some guy in Europe or South America, and then it goes through a chain of dealers and it ends up in the possession of some rich American who's not a crook, but has purchased an object that was stolen or taken illegally from some other country." Even before Miller's death, Smith said the case would have likely taken years to resolve. Each item needs to be evaluated on its own merits, and must include factors like the date of purchase, trade law for each country at the time of purchase, and cultural significance. For thousands of items, that presents an incredible logistical challenge, Smith said. "You can understand why this case is going nowhere," Smith said. "They just don't have the resources to spend 30 years going through this stuff."
Mr Miller is just one of thousands of collectors in the United States alone. Who is going to pay for going through all their loose undocumented artefacts when they die? Or will their heirs just dump it all on a museum or dealer and hope nobody asks where they came from and whether they were all obtained licitly? That goes for coin collections too.


lalbertson said...

Eleanor Robson agrees with you. She provided this comparison image from the British Museum. Notice the square shape of the center hole?

Paul Barford said...

I think you wanted this to go to the "Bulgarian bust" post about the alleged sumerian plaque. But thanks.

lalbertson said...

Yep, sorry for the clutter.

Paul Barford said...

No problem, the three people who read this blog will know what you meant.

Brian Curtiss said...

There have to be more than three.

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