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International undercover operation recovers Native American artefacts

Native American artefacts, artefacts of great religious significance and artefacts containing feathers from the bald eagle, are protected by US laws. Tribal sacred objects are protected by the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), as well. Illegal trade in these artefacts are punished by several years in prison. Still, such artefacts are traded in an international closed marked at high prices. Headgear with bald eagle feathers was offered in the marked at a price of 1 mio $$ in 1999. New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe are the main centres in this illegal trade. Many of the most wanted artefacts are sold to Europe. Native Americans have been strongly critizising federal authorities for not putting a stop to this trade.

Recently, a Norwegian police officer has for the first time ever acted as an undercover agent to fight cultural crime in the US. Special investigator Ivar Husby of the Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental crime (Økokrim) played the part of a wealthy European art dealer looking to buy indian artefacts in the US, and thus helped to put an end to a network dealing in Native American works of art. ”Undercover” – to a European this might mean something like Fox Moulder of the X-files: Fast cars, expensive hotels, elegant surroundings, lots of cash and fancy guns, popular myths of the everyday life of a secret agent.

Both the FBI and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have for several years tried to get access to the different networks that deal illegally in indian artefacts. In early 1999 one had reached a cross-roads: Should the ongoing undercover operation be terminated, or should one have one last try at it?

The FBI knew from their own experience that the market was very wary of unfamiliar, US would-be buyers. This was probably the main cause for the operation not going anywhere. The different agents were never offered illegal goods. The authorities knew who the main dealers were, but not where they got the artefacts from. Who brought the artefacts from the reservations? Was there a main supplier? A decision was then made to change strategy. A well-to-do European art collector could very well get the trust that was needed to get a foot on the inside.

Santa Fe was the obvious place to start the operation. Navaho, apache, hopi, zuni and acoma are only some of the Native American nations that have their home in the Southwest. The settlements in the reservations are often small and lies at great distance from each other, often far out in the for most purposes roadless wilderness. The Navaho lands, for instance, cover an area of c. 300 x 600 kilometres.

The Norwegian ØKOKRIM are part of Interpol’s Working Group on Wildlife Crime. This group meets twice a year and consists of active investigators within the field. Contacts are made across national borders. Ivar Husby was asked to contribute to the ongoing investigations in the US. Not only bacause of his experience as a field investigator, but also because the Scandinavian countries have an aboriginal population of their own, the Saamis. This could serve as a sufficient background to explain the ”art dealer’s” interest in Indian sacred objects. It seemed natural that the ”dealer” would now like to expand his ”exclusive collection”.

The summer of 1999 was a busy time for Husby, who had to do a lot of reading on Native American art and culture. Work was done to establish a credible identity. Business card, firm name and phone numbers had to be in order. Creating an image as a wealthy, well-informed art dealer demanded a different quality in shoes and clothing than the one common for a Norwegian policeman. A Rolex was borrowed from a shop in Oslo for the occasion.

The FBI established a art dealership agency in Philadelphia, with European sub-agencies in Paris and London. Towards the end of July 1999 contacts were made with the relevant art galleries in Santa Fe. The FBI ”art dealer” made appointments on behalf of his ”client” – a Norwegian collector looking for equisite artefacts. The objects we wanted, was in the price range from 25,000 $$ upwards to 1 mio $$.

The task force met in Albuquerque in August. Two FBI agents, one US Fish & Wildlife Service agent and the Norwegian Husby. Through movies and television one often gets the impression that there is a somewhat strained relationship between the FBI and other federal agencies. This was not the case here. ”We all knew that this had to be team effort if we were to succeed,” says Husby. ”None of us could pull this off on his or her own.”

A two days training programme for Husby and his FBI partner was the next step. Indian cultural history, religious ceremonies, knowledge of objects and personalities, art investments and branch orientation – lots of information had to be absorbed in a short time. ”The eight hours time lag made it hard to get down to business right away,” says Husby. ”US dialects can be difficult to understand for a foreigner, as well. We rented a Chrysler sports car, and was accomodated at the fanciest hotels. A new hotel every night, no outgoing phone calls. Our security was an ever-present concern.”

”We started our tour through the most exclusive art galleries of Santa Fe equipped with recording devices. Because of the pre-arranged appointments, contacts were made at the top lever from the start. Our sincere interest in equisite artefacts built up trust, and we were invited to an exhibition opening. Already the next day we enjoyed the advantage of being recognized in the relevant milieu, as we approached other galleries.”

This was followed by dinner invitations to private homes, and new, promising acquaintances were made.

”All the time we feared that something should happen to the recording eqipment. One sudden sound could have disastrous effects. After every meeting the team had to be debriefed. Who had we been meeting with? What did they look like, what did they talk about? The days seemed to go by in slow motion,” says Husby.

”No gallery will start by offering illegal goods. The dealer is very careful, trying to build up trust. An offering to buy an Acoma seremonial staff with eagle feathers on put us on the right track. I didn’t argue with the price, but stated that I did want this artefact. I left the haggling to my FBI partner. 10,000 $$ in cash changed hands.”

Other deals were made. More and more exclusive objects were offered. ”My security grew. As a ”collector”, it was natural to ask for information as to the origin of the artefacts: Where did they originate, what was their use, when were they used, and was it possible to arrange a meeting with the previous owner? The opportunity to make a profit tickled the top people’s interest. They wanted a satisfied customer.”

Eventually, the undercover agents were asked on a trip to one of the reservations. They were to meet with some of the local contacts. This became a turning point in the whole operation. For the first time ever an investigator was given the opportunity to be introduced to the local tribal milieu. It is not often that an outsider, and a white man, get such an opportunity – even after years of being on good terms with the tribal people, this is rare. The undercover agents had now proved that illegal trading was going on. The leaders of the operation now faced a difficult choice, and a decision had to be made: Should one put the gallery owners into custody and close the case, or should one use the opportunity to catch the whole chain of receivers and suppliers? The FBI opted for the second alternative.

”I left for Norway and my regular job. Meanwhile, my FBI partner kept the dealers interested by purchasing more artefacts on my behalf. My reputation as a wealthy milch cow grew,” says the Norwegian.

In October that same year the task force was gathered again in Santa Fe. Ivar Husby bought more artefacts; mostly objects with eagle feathers on them, but seremonial equipment, clothing and head gears as well – all of them artefacts of great religious significance to the different tribes.

"One early morning we were taken for a drive by a local dealer. I had been promised a meeting with a hataale, a healer, who had once owned a small shrine that I had purchased on my first visit to the US. I didn’t know where we were heading. Now we were on our own, no back-up was available. Our car was heading westwards, to the Xia reservation.”

Husby recalls:

”A feeling of being a very long way from home overwhelmed me as we approached the huge, barren landscape. Our guide took us to several hidden villages, and introduced us to his friends. We got the impression that our guide was in fact the main player in the illegal trading business. Now his whole network was revealed to us. All our efforts was rewarded.”

”One gallery owner felt that I still lacked the pride of every collection of Indian artefacts: a tribal leader’s head gear. He offered to sell an ancient Cheyenne head gear made of feather from 13 golden eagles. The price was substantial, 250,000 $$. The price was too high for us, and we had to win time. I told the dealer that I had to discuss the purchase with my wife back in Europe.”

The operation was almost over. There was no way the FBI could spend that much money, and the task force had to make sure that the head gear was actually in the gallery owner’s possession.

”In January 1999 the task force was gathered for the grand finale. New visits to the galleries told us that the most exclusive objects were in stock. We agreed to close the deal on the next day,” says Husby.

That same night 25 police officers took action in Santa Fe. At the same time, strikes were made against galleries in other cities. Nearly 2000 artefacts were confiscated, and several people were taken into custody.

The different tribal councils came to inspect the seized objects. ”They were happy that the sacred objects were being repatriated, but at the same time upset that such artefacts had in fact been stolen and sold. According to the tribal leaders, it requires years of ceremonies to re-establish the balance with the spirits.”

Other artefacts were shown to be stolen from museum collections across the US.

In one of the resulting court cases an art dealer, TP Kornwolf, stood trial at the federal court in Minneapolis in 2000, charged with illegal trading of Indian cultural treasures containing feathers from golden eagles and bald eagles. The US Fish and Wildlife Service had for years tried to gather evidence against Kornwolf, the supposed main dealer in illegal artefacts in the Northwest. Kornwolf was sentenced to three years probation, a fine of $2000 and a special assessment of $400.

More about the case here, here and here. A divergent view on the case is argued here and here.

(I originally wrote this article in 2000 for Scientific American/Discovering Archaeology - it was never published, as the magazine became defunct shortly afterwards. The article has only been slightly revised)


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