(INDIANAPOLIS) – Nearly 400 urns, carvings and other artifacts seized from a Rush County farm five years ago are now headed back to China.
Chinese and American diplomats gathered at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis for a ceremony to finalize the transfer of Chinese items collected over the course of 60 years by amateur archeologist Don Miller of Waldron. The FBI’s art crime unit raided Miller’s farm in 2014, and Miller signed over about one-sixth of his collection to the bureau before his death the next year.
Special Agent Tim Carpenter says the maze of international treaties and laws governing cultural artifacts is difficult to navigate — digging up an item from one country and bringing it home might be perfectly legal, but doing the exact same thing in a neighboring country might not be. The FBI questioned whether some of Miller’s acquisitions crossed the legal line, though no criminal charges were filed before his death.
Identifying and returning the items is even more complicated. Miller turned over about 7,000 items, including human remains. Carpenter explains outside experts have worked to establish whether each item is authentic, what it’s worth, where it originated, and what country is its rightful owner. That process opens up its own labyrinth of questions. National borders have been redrawn repeatedly over the years. If an item is authenticated as from the Inca Empire, that doesn’t always establish whether it comes from modern-day Argentina, Peru, Chile, or elsewhere. And Native American items run into their own tangle of U.S. laws, and a need to distinguish their origin among nearly 600 recognized tribes.
The U.S. has previously returned items from Miller’s collection to Ecuador, Spain, New Zealand, Colombia and Canada, and Carpenter expects it’ll take several more years to complete the work.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Aleisha Woodward (left) reviews items from Don Miller’s collection with Chinese diplomatic and cultural officials (Photo: Eric Berman/WIBC)