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    Follow the Stories | Los Angeles, California (2006)

    The Law of Antiquities


    Posted: 2.17.2006


    The design of this bowl, which bears stylized images of a man and woman inside, is typical of the pottery made for centuries by the Mimbres people.

    bowl detail

    Appraiser John Buxton pointed out that evidence of a repair could be seen along a faint crack in the surface of the bowl.

    At the Los Angeles ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, a woman arrived with a bowl from the Mimbres people of southwestern New Mexico, an agricultural group who lived in small villages until the culture collapsed in the early 12th century after a series of droughts. The bowl brought to the ROADSHOW had a stylized figure of a man and a woman drawn inside it, typical of the expressive pots that the Mimbres people (pronounced MIM-bruhs) made and used for hundreds of years. The bowl's owner received it as an inheritance, but it came with a murky modern-day legal and ethical predicament: Is it legal for her to sell the pot? And even if it is legal, is it ethical to sell it?

    John Buxton, the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser from Dallas who looked at the piece in Los Angeles, said that before any decisions could be made on its sale, the piece needed to be authenticated. He noticed that the black lines had been repainted over cracks, which made him wonder why the pot had been altered. A damaged pot might have been innocently restored at some point, or a clever forger might have doctored an old pot to give it more value. "We haven't finished our homework yet," Buxton told the pot's owner, noting that Mimbres pottery experts need to look at the pot and test the paint.

    Legal to own? Legal to buy? Legal to sell? But what about the ethics? More on the law governing American antiquities

    One thing is clear: no laws forbid the owner from keeping and displaying the pot. That said, certain laws passed over the last 100 years could apply to its sale. The Antiquities Act, passed in this country in 1906 and strengthened in 1979 and 1988, forbids anyone to remove prehistoric objects from federal or tribal land. But there's no provenance known about the pot, so the piece may have been found on private land along the Mimbres Valley. A New Mexico law passed in 1989 extends prohibitions against pot-hunting to private lands as well, but only to pots that have been removed after that date, and it's uncertain when this pot was found.

    John's preliminary assessment is that the pot he saw in Los Angeles is probably an authentic Mimbres one, and that because its history is unknown, it probably is legal to sell. He emphasizes, however, that because of the laws surrounding such pots, anyone who plans to sell one should go through qualified experts and reputable dealers. John believes that this particular pot would probably fetch between $20,000 and $30,000 if sold at a gallery.

    Legal Perhaps, But Ethical?
    Elaine Hughes, collections manager for the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, says that museums no longer buy such pieces because purchasing undocumented pots encourages a black market in ones that have been illegally taken. Hughes suggests that even if the piece can be legally sold on the private market, the woman who inherited the Mimbres pot faces an ethical and moral decision. If this pot is sold to a private collector, she points out, it's no longer in the public domain where Native Americans, researchers, and ordinary people have access to it. "I would encourage her to donate it to the Western New Mexico University Museum," which is located in the area where the Mimbres once lived, Hughes says. She suggests giving the pot to that particular museum because it has the largest permanent display of Mimbres pottery anywhere.

    Such a donation would provide the pot's owner with a tax write-off, based on its insurance value, and does something else that is hard to put a price tag on: "It leaves a legacy for the public," Hughes says.

    See the Los Angeles, California (2006) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    For more about the Antiquities Act, see:
    The National Park Service History: Antiquities Act of 1906
    A short history of the Antiquities Act on the Web site of the National Park Service.
    US Code: Title 16, 433. American Antiquities
    Text of the relevant section of federal law governing American antiquities, from the Web site of the Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute.

    Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.

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