The Oregonian reported yesterday that a Eugene, Oregon judge is finishing the sentencing of a band of looters that stole artifacts and remains from Native American sites in Central Oregon, some to fund their methamphetamine habits. In what might be the largest antiquities bust in United States history, authorities have seized over 100,000 artifacts from a ring of thieves that looted over 100 historical sites causing over $1 million in archaeological damage.
They dug by sunlight and flashlight, making away with a kneecap and a skeleton — as well as baskets, bowls, spear points, skinners and stone knives — before federal agents caught up with them as part of a massive investigation dubbed “Operation Bring ‘Em Back.” […] Ten people have been convicted of looting artifacts or human remains in the case, three more face criminal indictments, and nearly 20 others remain subjects in the ongoing investigation, according to federal court records.
Whenever thieves steal artifacts before archaeologists have had a chance to properly excavate a site, any hope of understanding their context is lost. This is why un-provenanced artifacts in auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s or even Ebay or on exhibit in museums like the J. Paul Getty Museum are clearly illicit gains. Particularly when there’s no documentation prior to the UNESCO agreement of 1970. These buyers and middle men of illicit and illegal antiquities are equally complicit in the theft of the artifacts since, if there wasn’t a market, the looters wouldn’t bother.
This is why it is interesting, according to the article, to see that the authorities involved in the Operation Bring ‘Em Back are about to move into the second phase, which is to target the buyers:
“The initial search warrants were focused upon diggers — unlawful diggers and unlawful traders,” said Kent, who handled the case until his retirement in January.
“The next phase,” he said, “would focus on those individuals who essentially serve as buyers to increase their own collections or people who buy to trade with others (on) the ever-escalating marketplace.”
Federal agents searched the homes of three major artifacts collectors in the case. None of them — Phillip Fields, 63,of Bly; Harold Elliot, 64, of La Pine; and Miles Simpson, 44, of Bend — has been charged with a crime, and all three maintain their artifacts were collected legally.
“Neither Miles nor I have done anything that would warrant this kind of investigation,” Elliot said.. Elliot and Simpson said they have never knowingly bought any illegal artifact.
I wonder if Elliot and Simpson have clear documentation that shows ownership of all of their artifacts prior to 1970? If not, then they clearly are looters, whether they got their hands in the dirt or not.