Aug 18, 2009
"STEALING THE PAST:
The haul included everything from arrowheads to pots and pendants. There were woven sandals and ceramic figures. There was even a rare turkey-feather blanket and a female loin cloth. All told, undercover investigators purchased 256 artifacts worth more than $335,000. All were illegal.
Using an undercover source, agents from the FBI and the US Bureau of Land Management had spent since November 2006 infiltrating a tight-knit community of looters in the Four Corners area who dig up graves and pillage archaeological sites on public lands, then sell the items they find to dealers and collectors. But it wasn't until early June of this year that agents announced their take: Thus far, a total of 24 people have been indicted, 23 arrested and 12 homes searched—including four in Santa Fe. On June 12, federal agents searched the homes of collectors Forrest Fenn, Thomas Cavaliere, Bill Schenck and Christopher Selser, seeking artifacts their undercover source had learned about during the course of the investigation. Although agents seized certain items—as well as computers, business records and photographs—they have yet to file charges against the four Santa Fe residents (most of the arrestees live in Blanding, Utah).
While recent daily newspaper coverage has focused on those particular raids, Santa Fe figures heavily into the story of archaeological looting for reasons that go beyond the handful of local dealers whose homes were searched. According to Phil Young, an archaeologist and retired National Park Service special agent, Santa Fe is the "hub of the wheel of the black-market trade" when it comes to illegal artifacts. Young should know: He has been tracking looters since the early 1990s and has seen their methods and networks evolve and expand. Of late, looters have become increasingly sophisticated, Young says, using GPS units and Google Earth to locate archaeological sites, and employing front-end loaders and backhoes to unearth remains. Such focused efforts in some ways reflect another important factor when it comes to archaeological looting. "Historically, the trend has usually been that the amount of looting and vandalism goes up at times when the economy has gone down and, in good economic times, the amount of vandalism and theft goes down," Young says. That trend seems to be holding true right now.
"Even here in the Galisteo Basin, within the last year and a half, we've had an unauthorized hole put in a place that hadn't had any holes in 15 years," he says. "We've got that occurring at a historic and prehistoric turquoise mine in the Cerrillos Hills—when times get tough, people get very creative and, a lot of times, the ethical considerations get ignored." The issue of ethics can sometimes be a tricky one, especially considering the different views scientists, Native Americans and collectors take when it comes to the value of what lies beneath the soil. But the laws themselves are clear. Federal and New Mexico state laws protect sites, dictate who may excavate them and how, and ensure that no one can turn a profit on the bones—or sacred items—of someone else's ancestors. That said, the black market in illegal Native American artifacts is an increasingly complex network, one that sometimes overlaps with the drug trade and other crimes—and it's one that federal investigators are trying to wrestle under control. Beginning in the early '90s, a task force convened to clamp down on the theft of sacred objects, artifacts looted from public or tribal lands and human burials. Over coffee and a hash breakfast approximately a month after the Four Corners arrests, Young recalls the variety of criminals apprehended during earlier investigations: In 1994, federal agents confiscated 11 objects considered sacred by the Mescalero Apache Tribe from Santa Fe's East-West Trading Company. In another instance, an energy worker would scout northwestern New Mexico's oil and gas fields for archaeological sites, then return to loot them. After he was charged, he even admitted to using a concrete saw to slice Navajo pictographs from the sandstone bluffs on which they were painted. "Fifteen minutes per panel, he told us," Young says, "to steal those." Then, in the late '90s, an operation in the Farmington area yielded indictments of a dozen looters. That particular ring was also involved in the drug trade: "The guy who was the methamphetamine dealer was trading with meth heads for artifacts," Young says. "They would get high, work off their buzz—their high—doing destructive things to the scientific record, trying to recover these artifacts so they could go get high again." The US is just now catching up to the rest of the world in treating looting and artifact theft as serious crimes. Ten years ago, just three federal agents nationwide dealt full-time with the issue. Now, the FBI alone has 20 agents assigned to the arts and artifacts crimes unit—and one of them is stationed in Santa Fe. Collectors here appreciate—and can afford—rare items. But New Mexico is also a state in which looters are wreaking destruction. With a sweet, easy smile that somehow doesn't distract from the serious issue at hand, archaeologist Norman Nelson breaks down the enormity of New Mexico's looting problem. A native New Mexican and second-generation archaeologist, Nelson has worked in archaeology for three decades.
"If you were to take the southwestern part of the state, we conservatively estimate that 95 percent of those sites have been damaged—and that's [by] everything from a shovel to a bulldozer," Nelson, who now works at the state Historic Preservation Division and is acting coordinator of the state's SiteWatch program, says. The prehistoric pottery found in that part of the state—Mimbres-style pottery has distinctive black-on-white geometric designs and, oftentimes, human or animal figures—is a high-end item, he says, that appeals to collectors, particularly those in places such as Scandinavia, Sweden, Germany, Japan and China. The black-market trade in artifacts is a $5 billion to $6 billion a year business, Nelson says—and it makes up a significant chunk of the illegal global market. "Arms is first, illegal drugs is second and artifacts is third."
For complete review and additional details on how Fenn made his money (legally):