FBI Seeking Owners in Cultural Artifacts Case

The FBI's Art Crime Team is trying to identify the rightful owners of more than 7,000 artifacts seized in Indiana that came from locations spanning the globe.

Video Transcript

H.E. Francisco Santos, Colombian Ambassador to the U.S.: Thank you very, very much for all the work that you have done. And for recovering these archaeological pieces that are part of our heritage, part of our history, part of what we are as Colombians.

Narrator: The recent return of nearly 40 recovered Colombian artifacts was a momentous occasion for the South American country and the FBI.

The items are part of Colombia’s cultural heritage and are therefore considered priceless.

The event on October 10 (2018) marked a success for the FBI’s Art Crime Team, which recovered the items in 2014.

The returned antiquities are just a tiny fraction of a huge cache of artifacts from around the world the FBI discovered on an Indiana farm.

They represent the largest collection of art and cultural property ever recovered by the FBI in the course of an investigation.

A tip in 2013 led the FBI to the town of Waldron, Indiana. And to the farm of Don Miller.

In his house, they found everything from Ming vases to Native American arrowheads to human remains.

Miller, who died in 2015 at the age of 91, collected more than 42,000 artifacts over a period of about 60 years.

Miller was known by many for his archaeological exploits. But his passion as a collector at some point crossed the line into illegal activity.

In 2015, he signed over about 7,000 items to the FBI, which has undertaken a painstaking process to determine their provenance and return them to their rightful owners.

Tim Carpenter, FBI Special Agent: Don ultimately waived his title and claim to any of those pieces. It was his desire, again, that we repatriate and return these things to where they belonged. So that started this years-long process for us.

Narrator: The hub of the FBI’s effort is a nondescript warehouse outside Indianapolis. This is where the FBI has carefully stored and catalogued the artifacts and meticulously prepares them for shipping when they have been claimed.

Because Miller’s collection included a significant number of human remains—many of Native American origin—extensive care has gone into identifying and respectfully returning them, along with the items they were buried with.

Carpenter: It’s a very long and painstaking process. We have to do osteological examination of those human remains, and then we have to do a lot of tribal consultation. We have to work with the tribes and the indigenous groups and get their input and seek their assistance on identifying these remains and the ethnological pieces that go with them.

Narrator: Assisting the FBI are experts in archeology and cultural anthropology, who study the items to determine their origins and carefully prepare them for storage or transport. They treat the warehouse and its contents like a museum.

Carpenter: We have to climate control that warehouse. We have to control the humidity, the temperature. And we have a team of grad students that are all museum studies grad students, and they come to us and we give them some on-the-job experience and some on-the-job training, and they curate this collection for us, just like a museum would.

Narrator: Holly Cusack-McVeigh, an associate professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, illustrates how the FBI relies on partners—from tribal groups to academia. From the earliest days of the case, the collections and curator scholar has provided the Art Crime Team with expertise and guidance. Now four years on, she is the collection's chief steward, along with her team of students.

Cusack-McVeigh: We have a range of objects from different time periods and different cultural traditions. The objects themselves—every material type that you can imagine. And so along with that, on the museum collections care side, there's a lot that goes into making sure that these objects are cared for properly until they do go home.

Narrator: The FBI has set up an invitation-only website containing images and descriptions of the artifacts to help in the repatriation process. Its use is limited to parties with credible claims, since many items may have cultural sensitivities.

Carpenter: Our ultimate goal in this entire operation has been the respectful repatriation of these objects and these ancestors back to the people that they were taken from. We want to do that with some measure of dignity.

Narrator: The recent repatriation of the Colombian artifacts is a model example of how the process is working. 

Years of detective work, archeological research, and anthropological sleuthing helped return some 40 cultural treasures to their rightful home in Colombia.

The FBI is hoping for similar success for nearly 7,000 remaining artifacts.

Cusack-McVeigh: There’s still a lot of Native American material that we have yet to repatriate, and we are waiting for the tribes to look at that material and tell us that this is their material and to make a proper claim.

Carpenter: We are four years deep into this investigation. Our ultimate aim is to repatriate every single one of these pieces, at least the ones that we can determine were obtained improperly or illegally. We want to return all of them to their rightful homes. But we need the public’s help and we need academia’s help, and we need the help of our foreign partners to do that.

Text Slide: Sovereign nations and Native American tribes wishing to determine if they have a claim to recovered artifacts should contact the FBI and submit a request at artifacts@fbi.gov.

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