WALDRON, Ind. (USA TODAY) — FBI agents Wednesday seized "thousands" of cultural artifacts, including American Indian items, from the private collection of a 91-year-old man who had acquired them over the past eight decades.
An FBI command vehicle and several tents were spotted at the property in rural Waldron, about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis.
The Rush County man, Don Miller, has not been arrested or charged.
Robert A. Jones, special agent in charge of the Indianapolis FBI office, would not say at a news conference specifically why the investigation was initiated, but he did say the FBI had information about Miller's collection and acted on it by deploying its art crime team.
FBI agents are working with art experts and museum curators, and neither they nor Jones would describe a single artifact involved in the investigation, but it is a massive collection. Jones added that cataloging of all of the items found will take longer than "weeks or months."
"Frankly, overwhelmed," is how Larry Zimmerman, professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis described his reaction. "I have never seen a collection like this in my life except in some of the largest museums."
The monetary value of the items and relics has not been determined, Jones said, but the cultural value is beyond measure. In addition to American Indian objects, the collection includes items from China, Russia, Peru, Haiti, Australia and New Guinea, he said.
The items were found in a main residence, in which Miller lives; a second, unoccupied residence on the property; and in several outbuildings, Jones said. The town originally was Iroquois land.
The objects were not stored to museum standards, Jones said, but it was apparent Miller had made an effort to maintain them well.
The aim of the investigation is to determine what each artifact is, where it came from and how Miller obtained it, Jones said, to determine whether some of the items might be illegal to possess privately.
Jones acknowledged that Miller might have acquired some of the items before the passage of U.S. laws or treaties prohibited their sale or purchase.
In addition, the investigation could result in the "repatriation" of any of the cultural items, Jones said.
Dark Rain Thom, a Shawnee descendant who served on the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission under three governors, said the motives of such collectors vary, and that it's not uncommon for collections to come to light when an elderly person dies and descendants try to figure out what to do with artifacts.
Often, she said, family members then quietly donate them to museums or arrange to return them to specific tribes — if that provenance can be determined.
Some collectors are motivated by money, as the artifacts' sale can be lucrative, Thom said. But others with interests in archaeology or anthropology are motivated by a desire to understand the development of a culture through its art items and everyday implements. And others, Thom said, are in it for the thrill of discovery.
The FBI and its partners might have a daunting task determining the origins and provenance of all of the items, Thom predicted.
"It may be 30 years — or never — before they have it all cataloged."
Contributing: The Associated Press