Wednesday 7 May 2014

What a Collector Had in His Cellar

M.L. Nestel, "Why the FBI Is Investigating a 91-year-old Former Nuclear Engineer" May 05, 2014.

US collectors and their lobbyists made a lot of a recent raid on the Indiana home of eclectic collector Don Miller, citing it as an example of government overreach. The account of how some of the artefacts reportedly ended up in the US certainly explains the interest of the authorities.
He gathered up artifacts when he went on church missionary trips overseas, and during his vacations. But Miller didn’t always collect the conventional way. Instead of making purchases from local collectors or galleries, he sometimes went on digs—often digs that he had brokered with local officials. One longtime friend and neighbor, Amy Mohr, describes how Miller prepped for one trip by stuffing an entire a suitcase full of cigarettes that he used as barter for precious goods. “He goes all over the world and is good at talking to the locals to find this stuff,” she says. [...]  In 2004, he managed to grab lemon-sized cannonballs from the citadel in earthquake-ravaged Haiti during a missionary trip. But when Miller tried to bring them aboard the plane on his flight back, they were confiscated. “They said, ‘We know what these are, and you can’t have these.’ He just let them take it,” says Mohr, who was on the trip.[...] one thing that piqued the government’s interest was the human remains. They include the skeletal body of an Indian chief—under glass with the label “Sioux warrior 19th century”—as well as some fractured skulls and a bunch of femurs. “If they’re Native American human remains there’s no way he should be owning those,” Zimmerman says.
But his collection of Native American and other artefacts and human remains was not the only thing that has piqued the interest of Federal authorities according to this article. As a young man Miller, then an army engineer, helped develop the first nuclear bomb. Miller had in his wide-ranging collection some "keepsakes" from his time working on the Manhattan Project. Reportedly:
About 10 years ago, Miller invited Richard M. Gramly, a Harvard-trained anthropologist, and a friend to visit his home. When Miller took Gramly downstairs, it wasn’t the art that grabbed his attention. [...]  ”On the shelf was a triggering device for an atomic bomb. The first bomb [Little Boy] that blew up Hiroshima was made exactly from those components,” says Gramly. [...] Don Miller, in my opinion, did not have a copy of a trigger on the shelf of his display case in his basement relic room—rather he had the real McCoy.” The discovery shook Gramly. ”To my horror, I see the man has a switch,” he says. “No private person should have this device.” [...] Convinced that it could fall into the wrong hands and that someone could potentially use it to make a dirty bomb, Gramly decided to call the authorities. [...] Gramly is convinced he did the right thing: “Miller is getting to an age where he could die any day. How would you like to go to a yard sale and buy that nuclear device for 50 cents?” he asks. “I feel like I’ve done my duty.”

I would guess that the raid was set up to see what else the old man had managed to hide away in his collection. If this story is true, how on earth was a top-secret bomb component (government property surely) taken off the site of the tests? More cigarettes? How many more US private citizens have dangerous atom bomb components in their cellars?

I guess if this story is true, the collectors who made a fuss about the raids should be feeling a bit stupid, I guess that's why no follow-up covering this story appears on any of their blogs and forums.

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