Walking through a local antique store, I picked up the current edition of “Antique Week” and scanned the headlines, “FBI impounds thousands of artifacts at Indiana farm.” I felt a chill run down my spine. I like to collect. Could my being a collector trigger the FBI coming to my house?
A Real Indiana Jones
Dr. Don Miller has been described as a real life Indiana Jones. Traveling around the world, Miller has been doing what every good natured picker and collector does; he’s been buying those things that spark his fancy. At 91 years of age, Miller has amassed a lifetime of odds and ends and built himself a makeshift museum at his residence. Having traveled the world, Miller’s collection includes items from Haiti, Greece, China, Russia, and of course America.
“I have been in 200 countries collecting artifacts,” he said according to one news outlet.
That’s some impressive travelling by anyone’s account.
Cultural Artifacts or Garage Sale Goods
Miller likes to buy those things that catch his fancy. However, where many pickers and collectors focus on one genre, like the American Civil War, Miller seemed to have no specific interests other than the item he purchased had to have an interesting story. A conversational piece per say.
Miller’s collection included fossils, arrowheads, a dugout canoe, and a wooden cowbell from Tibet to name but a few things. Miller liked to show off his collection, as do all of us who take pride in our collecting and had even constructed a museum on his property in Indiana to showcase his collections.
But, what Miller did not have according to various media outlets where any state secrets, stolen art, or missing items of antiquity; items that would involve a transgression of the assorted cultural and antiquities laws that have been passed around the world. No, the items described to be in Millers possession seems to be rather common, items that you could find in any antique store, local market, or garage sale.
Miller had just accumulated lots of items.
“I have never seen a collection like this in my life except in some of the largest museums,” said Larry Zimmerman, a professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.
The Federal Response
The Federal Bureau of Investigation descended on Miller’s home in droves. Bringing their SUV’s, communication vans and specialized trucks the FBI set up tents and began inventorying and seizing items of suspected origin. Yet, in an odd twist, Miller was not charged with any crimes. The FBI was simply working on their suspicions that maybe something was wrong.
Searching the FBI press release data base, there are no mentions of their raid on Dr. Miller’s home. Doing a search of key words, it is possible to find other cases where the FBI has recovered artifacts and items removed from their respective countries of origin. However, in each case, the FBI cites the general legality of the laws that were violated. Not so with Miller.
For those of us who enjoy scrounging about the flea markets, the antique shops and the garage sales looking for those unique items, building our collections, and happily showing them off to our friends and neighbors, this case is more important than you may think. Miller has not been charged with any crimes. The FBI has cited no specific laws that have been broken. Yet, Miller’s property has been taken and he has endured having federal agents on his property while neighbors and the media watched with curiousness.
Had Miller been in possession of some rare stolen documents, antiquities or art, federal agents would have proudly issued a press release announcing the return of said items to their rightful owners. Yet, at present, they have not. Apparently, no sovereign country is missing a dugout canoe or a wooden cow bell.
Miller’s culpability is that he simply collected too much, from to many places. Amassing a massive collection has made him suspicious in the eyes of the FBI. And, this is the wrong approach to take with collectors.
Collectors Are Not Criminals
It is easy to get the collecting bug. I collect art and Americana. I love the hunt. I like the stories of the items that I find. I like to hang my collections on my wall for the enjoyment of those who come to my house. But, like the vast majority of collectors, I do not have any paperwork to prove every possession; I simply have the items hanging on my walls. So, will the FBI one day show up and seize my collection, just on the hunch I may have bought something I should not of?
Without the FBI issuing further clarification of their investigation, explaining their suspicions which have triggered this raid and their seizure of Miller’s private property, these federal actions signal a very dangerous and ominous warning to collectors across America. Every collector could now someday be treated like criminals. When all we wanted to do was buy something unique and have something to talk about.