Sunday, February 17, 2008

Federal Agents Accuse Antiquities Smuggler

From the Las Cruces Sun News Federal agents accuse smuggler of stealing N.M. artifacts The Associated Press Article Launched: 02/10/2008 12:48:27 PM MST SANTA FE—A ceramic pot and a 1,000-year-old ladle looted from New Mexico's El Malpais National Monument are among the stolen artifacts identified in a five-year federal investigation into the smuggling of Asian and American Indian antiquities. Dozens of federal agents raided a Los Angeles gallery and four museums in Southern California, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, searching for artifacts taken from protected archaeological sites in Thailand, Myanmar, China and New Mexico. "There's no question there is a problem," said Eric Blinman, head of the Museum of New Mexico's Office of Archaeological Studies. "There is so much public land, and there are so few enforcement officials in any of the federal agencies. People can get away with looting, at least for the short term." Robert E. Olson, a 79-year-old dealer from Cerritos, Calif., was targeted in the latest raid, according to a search warrant. He allegedly told an undercover National Park Service agent in 2003 that he had removed archaeological resources from National Park Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands, the search warrant for his home showed. Olson allegedly said he had arranged for buyers to contribute some of these artifacts to museums to claim fraudulent tax deductions, the warrant showed. Olson reportedly told the agent he had the largest collection of Native American ladles in the world—seven of which were from Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico, the warrant showed. Olson also reportedly told the agent a museum owner who regularly looted Anasazi sites took him to El Malpais National Monument near Grants, where they found a ceramic storage jar, the warrant said. The next day, Olson reportedly said he returned to the site and noticed something white in a crack in the cliff, reached in and pulled out a ladle that was 1,200 years old, according to the warrant. Removing archaeological resources from public lands without a permit is a violation of the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act. The United States is one of few countries in the world where antiquities can be privately owned, Blinman said. "People have a finders-keepers attitude toward any neat stuff. Archaeological stuff qualifies," he said. Phil Young, a former federal enforcement agent, said the location of "ruins" are marked on old U.S. Geological Survey maps. "The word gets out as far as where archaeological resources and artifacts can be found. And it only takes one bad actor to destroy the contextual and scientific information for everyone else," he said. Tim Maxwell, an archaeologist who formerly headed the Museum of New Mexico's archaeology office, said, "people see Mimbres pots in art catalogs. They see the prices. That certainly gets people motivated economically." Kayci Cook Collins, the superintendent at El Malpais, said the 115,000-acre monument has thousands of archaeological sites ranging from the archaic period to Spanish colonial contact. The monument staff gets some help from volunteers with the state Historic Preservation Division's site watch program, but "it's hard to be everywhere at once," she said. She said it's important to not remove antiquities from their context. "There's nothing wrong with being delighted at seeing a potsherd on the ground. But how much better it is to put it down so the next person will be delighted in the same way," she said.

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