Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology was one of seventeen tribes and other organizations supporting the Association on American Indian Affairs December 6, 2018 statement urging collectors and investors to buy contemporary American Indian art instead of antiquities.

The AAIA statement asks that collectors “interested in American Indian art should … support contemporary American Indian artists and their creations made for the art market” rather than buy American Indian “artifacts” and “antiquities.”

The statement explains the sad truth known to most archaeologists and museum workers, namely that “there is a long history of looting and stealing American Indian burials and important American Indian cultural and sacred patrimony. These items often end up in private collections and ultimately auction houses and institutions all over the world.”

Image of artifacts for sale on the web.
A small sample of the many American Indian artifacts for sale on a popular internet auction site.

The advent of internet auctions in the mid-1990s made it easy for collectors to connect with sellers, ultimately fueling the demand for American Indian artifacts and antiquities and driving up prices. Internationally the trade in antiquities has been closely linked to funding terrorism, while domestically it is related to the illicit drug trade. A November 3, 2017 blog post by Jason Daley on Smithsonian.com concludes that most international antiquities being sold online are fake or illegal. The same is likely true of artifacts from the United States.

Image of posters about site looting, Operation Timucua press conference.
Exhibit during Operation Timucua news conference. Photo by Tim Donovan, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, February 12, 2013. Used in compliance with Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

One example is found in Operation Timucua, a multi-year undercover sting conducted by law enforcement agencies in Florida, which culminated in a number of arrests in 2014. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers spent two years infiltrating what they came to know as a crime ring intent on removing ancient American Indian artifacts from public lands and then selling them on the internet, netting nearly $2 million. Thirteen individuals from Florida and Georgia were arrested, considered the main dealers and looters involved in the illicit organization. Massive numbers of antiquities were seized as well, many torn from sacred mounds and riverbeds where they had been placed and remained for thousands of years.

Image of some items sold in the Skinner December 1 2018 auction.
Screen shot of some of the items that were sold in the December 1, 2018 Skinner auction.

Closer to home, public outcry recently halted the auction of seven objects that originated with Tlingit, Bella Coola, and Nitinat peoples in the Pacific Northwest. The Medford Public Library, in a suburb of Boston, had received the objects in 1880. The objects were being offered in a December 1, 2018 auction run by Skinner in Boston, with sales of $117,000 anticipated and earmarked to fund construction of a new library. Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs asserted that the library needed to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that requires museums and other publically funded institutions and agencies to consult with tribes regarding sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. Medford Mayor Stephanie M. Burke investigated the auction with input from the town’s attorneys and ultimately agreed that the items should be pulled from the auction.

The AAIA statement concludes by stating that:

Buyers and collectors interested in Tribal antiquities and artifacts should do their own careful due diligence and consideration as to whether Ancestors and burial belongings, and cultural and sacred patrimony are a proper investment. Perceptions on collecting items of Tribal Cultural Heritage are changing quickly, along with laws that seek to protect them. Finally, and as stated above, buyers and collectors should focus their investment on contemporary American Indian artists whose stories and creations are accessible and created to share.

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