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FBI Struggles To Return Artifacts Seized From Indiana Farm To Their Rightful Homes


For the last five years, the FBI's Art Crime Team has been struggling with an unusual case. Back in 2014, they seized thousands of items from the home of a 91-year-old man named Don Miller - pottery, arrowheads, carvings. They even found remains from roughly 500 people they say were looted from Native American burial grounds.

Miller has since died. The process of returning all those items to their rightful homes is slow going. Now the agency is talking publicly about the case in hopes of generating leads. Tim Carpenter is with the FBI Art Crime Team. He's here in the studio. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


CORNISH: So what was the tip that led you to Don Miller's home?

CARPENTER: The tip initially came to us that Mr. Miller was in possession of a very large collection of Native American artifacts and some human remains and that he was also in possession of foreign material.

CORNISH: Things from other countries.

CARPENTER: Things from other countries. And that much of that collection was illegal. So we began a very typical, normal criminal investigation. We looked at those facts. We talked to Mr. Miller personally. We got statements from him. And based on our investigation, we did feel that some of these objects were obtained either illegally or improperly.

CORNISH: Now, these artifacts have cultural and spiritual significance - right? - to the communities to whom they belong. How did that affect how you did your work? What are kind of, like, typical FBI protocols that maybe you had to change because you're dealing with, like, remains and the like?

CARPENTER: Yeah, thanks. That's really to the core of this case for us and what we've tried to build. For example, for many communities throughout, you know, the Native American communities in the United States, handling of the dead is a very sensitive, very emotional issue. We knew early on we needed to consult with the tribes and bring them in to advise us and to consult with us about how we should handle those ancestral remains.

For example, many in the tribal communities would find it extraordinarily offensive to photograph the dead. Well, but we're the FBI, and we photograph evidence. This is, in fact, a law enforcement operation, and we have policy and statutory requirements that we have to meet that require us to take photographs.

But we had to set up a system where we could do that in very tightly controlled private spaces. We had Native American consultants on-site with us. They had the opportunity to do offerings to the ancestors, to do spiritual rituals. We don't normally give that level of access, but we felt it was imperative in this case to do it.

CORNISH: What are some of the obstacles you've run into in trying to return these objects?

CARPENTER: The biggest obstacle is just the scope - right? - the size of the collection that we recovered.

CORNISH: And it was in someone's house, not a museum, right? So I'm assuming he did not take detailed records.

CARPENTER: He did not keep detailed records. And so it's really been a puzzle that we have to piece together, right? If you think about the width and breadth of the archaeological record that we've collected here, there is no one specialist that knows and that can - is an expert on the full width and scope of this collection, right? So we have to engage lots of experts from all over the world.

CORNISH: What happens if you aren't able to figure it out - to close the case, so to speak?

CARPENTER: You know, some people suggest, well, would you be able to just donate any of the excess material to a museum? But I would think largely, you know, reputable museums would be reluctant. You know, there's no clear title to it, and it was taken improperly. And so that's a problem that we may have to face. My hope and our goal is to repatriate every single one of these objects.

CORNISH: Tim Carpenter is a supervisory special agent with the FBI Art Crime Team. Thank you for speaking with us.

CARPENTER: All right, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.