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antiquities

The U.S. government was intent on “repatriating” the ancient remains of Kennewick Man for burial to Indian tribes in compliance with the perceived spirit of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), though any relation between those remains and current tribes is at best notional. The U.S. Department of Justice and Army Corps of Engineers had thrown their full weight on the side of immediate burial, even threatening criminal charges against individual scientists who insisted on litigating the case. “If it weren’t for a harrowing round of panicky last-minute maneuvering worthy of a legal thriller, the remains might have been buried and lost to science forever.” Fortunately, scientists won in the end, leaving the “most important human skeleton ever found in North America” finally free to disclose his secrets. [Smithsonian, earlier]

P.S. Welcome Popehat readers (“Science in the Hands of Angry Liberal Arts Majors”). And as several commenters point out, my summary above overstates the extent to which scientists actually prevailed, since the U.S. government continues to fight tenaciously to prevent further testing of the remains, and reportedly dumped a thousand tons of fill on the discovery site early on in case it hadn’t made its stance clear.

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Last month I wrote about a strangely aggressive FBI raid on the rural Indiana home of a retiree locally famous for collecting artifacts and curios from around the world. In a piece written then but overlooked by me at the time, Radley Balko puts this in the context of equally aggressive armed enforcement raids on Indian artifact collectors in Florida and Utah, resulting in ruin for many defendants and, according to the reporting, at least four suicides of persons under investigation. Balko:

I remember collecting arrowheads as a kid. Depending on the state and the land on which you’re finding them, that in itself may or may not be legal today. Some states began banning the practice decades ago. But the laws were rarely enforced, and when they were, authorities targeted people stealing from preserved sites or tribal lands, or selling high-dollar artifacts.

No more. Under the phalanx of state, federal, and tribal laws, it may be a felony not only to buy and sell some manmade artifacts, but also to remove them from the bottoms of creek beds or dig them from the dirt. Most of the people busted in the Florida raids were hobbyists. And it’s conceivable that some of them had no idea they were breaking the law — though it also seems likely that some probably did.

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I’ve got a write-up at Cato at Liberty about the federal government’s massive, SWAT-like occupation of the rural Indiana property of Don Miller, a celebrated 91-year-old local collector who has traveled the globe and whose impressive collection of world and Indian artifacts “was featured in a four part series in the Rushville Republican.” Under various treaties and federal laws, mostly dating to relatively recent times, the federal government now deems ownership of many antiquities and Native American artifacts to be unlawful even if collectors acquired them in good faith before laws changed. [WISH (TV), Indianapolis Star, The Blaze.] More: coverage in two more outlets with a flavor very different from each other, Shelby County News (FBI source stresses Miller’s cooperativeness and suggests federal actions were wtih his consent or even at his behest) and National Public Radio (“seized,” “confiscated”)

Related: Richard Epstein at Hoover on Obama Administration plans to prohibit selling your family’s vintage piano or moving it across a state line. And aside from ivory chess sets, the nascent War on Antiques might take a toll of replica firearms [Washington Times]

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“Why America’s ivory ban won’t help elephants” — and will invite criminal elements further into the antique business [Spectator (U.K.) editorial; Doug Bandow, Cato Institute]

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Priceless Mayan-inspired mystical totem, or late Nineteenth Century German artifact aimed at the tourist trade? In “Indiana Jones and the Bogus Lawsuit,” Kevin at Lowering the Bar goes on the authentication trail.

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April 30 roundup

by Walter Olson on April 30, 2012

  • Because Washington knows best: “U.S. ban sought on cell phone use while driving” [Reuters, earlier here, here, here, etc.] More here; and LaHood spokesman says Reuters overstated his boss’s position.
  • Janice Brown’s Hettinga opinion: Lithwick can’t abide “starkly ideological” judging of this sort, except of course when she favors it [Root, earlier] At Yale law conclave, legal establishment works itself into hysterical froth over individual mandate case [Michael Greve] And David Bernstein again corrects some Left commentators regarding the standing of child labor under the pre-New Deal Constitution;
  • Latest antiquities battle: Feds, Sotheby’s fight over 1,000-year-old Khmer statue probably removed from Cambodia circa 1960s [VOA, Kent Davis]
  • Sebelius surprised by firestorm over religious (non-) exemption, hadn’t sought written opinions as to whether it was constitutional [Becket, Maguire] Obamanauts misread the views of many Catholics on health care mandate [Potemra, NRO]
  • “20 Years for Standing Her Ground Against a Violent Husband” [Jacob Sullum] How Trayvon Martin story moved through the press [Poynter] And Reuters’ profile of George Zimmerman is full of details one wishes reporters had brought out weeks ago;
  • Coaching accident fraud is bad enough, making off with client funds lends that extra squalid touch [NYLJ]
  • Kip Viscusi, “Does Product Liability Make Us Safer?” [Cato's Regulation magazine, PDF]

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It’s another big step forward for the notion of “cultural patrimony,” in this case humoring the whims of foreign governments that wish to suppress private ownership of long-collected everyday antiquities. [Peter Tompa/Cultural Property Observer; my take]

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As I note at Cato, antiquities law has been expanding to restrict private ownership of more and more ancient artifacts. The latest targets are numismatists; more on that in an op-ed that I published last week in the Examiner.

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Great WSJ article on the unending proliferation of federal crimes, with appearances by a family that ran into a law making it a felony to dig for arrowheads on federal land, Bobby Unser and his snowmobile-astray ordeal, and a man effectively ruined by the $860,000+ cost of successfully defending himself against a federal charge of violating Russian hunting regulations.

“Most people think criminal law is for bad people,” says Timothy Lynch of Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. People don’t realize “they’re one misstep away from the nightmare of a federal indictment.”

More: from Tim Lynch, and (via PoL) Josh Blackman, William Anderson/Regulation mag.

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“English Heritage claims it owns every single image of Stonehenge, ever” [Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing, TechDirt]

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John Tierney at the Times makes the case against heritage repatriation laws.

Why does the idea of cultural property have so many advocates? “It seems to establish a bulwark against the plunder of antiquities.” And yet how quickly it’s turned into a way of looting premodern artifacts from Western owners whose claim of title is stronger than that of foreign governments or indigenous/Indian tribes. “But if cultural property really did exist, the Enlightenment museum would be an example of it: an institution that evolved, almost uniquely, out of Western civilization. And the cultural property movement could be seen as a persistent attempt to undermine it. And take illicit possession.” (Edward Rothstein, “Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland”, New York Times, May 27).

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About time someone stood up to the demands against Western museums and collectors for repatriation of “cultural patrimony” lawfully obtained at the time (Eric Ormsby, “Treasures on Trial” (review of new James Cuno book), WSJ, Apr. 26; Kerry Howley, Reason “Hit and Run”, Apr. 24; earlier coverage).

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Under the proposed law, backed by Supreme Council of Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, persons around the world would be forbidden to sphinxbycaviglia.jpg make copies, even for private use, of the country’s famous monuments, scarabs and other Pharaonic survivals. “His comments came only a few days after an Egyptian opposition newspaper, Al-Wafd, published a report complaining that many more tourists each year travelled to the pyramid-shaped Luxor hotel in Las Vegas than to Luxor itself. The newspaper proposed that the US hotel should pay some of its profits to Luxor city.” However, Hawass said that copies of pyramids and other objects that were less than “exact” might escape a royalty obligation, which might get the back of the U.S. one dollar bill off the hook. (Rory McCarthy, “Egypt to copyright the pyramids and antiquities”, Guardian, Dec. 27; “Egypt to copyright pyramids”, AFP/Google, Dec. 26; AP/IHT). More: Coleman.

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Eyesore preservation

by Walter Olson on December 19, 2007

The brutalist-modern Third Church of Christ Scientist is one of the most widely disliked buildings in Washington, D.C., not least by its own congregation, which groans at the impracticalities of maintaining the concrete monstrosity: “According to one church official, you’ve got to build scaffolding just to reach some of the [light] bulbs [to change them].” But Washington’s local architectural-preservation authorities forbid the congregants from replacing the building, which dates all the way back to 1971. (Charles Paul Freund, “A Brutalist Bargain”, American Spectator, Dec. 18).

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December 5 roundup

by Walter Olson on December 5, 2007

  • Fear of “retribution” and “legal action” among reasons docs don’t report hazardous colleagues and conditions [WaPo on new Annals of Internal Medicine study]
  • Judge rips Milberg for high Chiron fee proposal, questions Skadden’s conflict [The Recorder]
  • Felony murder rule is an American exception with results that can be hard to defend [Liptak, NYT]
  • UK: “Man broke girlfriend’s leg in damages fraud” [Times Online]
  • Often driven by defensive medicine, CAT scans may pose their own risks to patients who undergo them [Newsday on NEJM study]
  • Commentator is glad post offices are lawyering up their Operation Santa gift programs [McDonough, CalLaw LegalPad; earlier; possibly related]
  • Quebec judge nixes suit by Concordia University mass murderer against former colleagues [Canadian Press]
  • Update on Kennewick man and Indian-remains legislation [WashTimes; earlier]
  • Magic of compound interest? Uncollected 1977 award for victim of Evel Knievel attack said to have mounted by now to $100 million [AP/Yahoo]
  • School discipline now a heavily lawyer-driven affair [Charleston Post & Courier courtesy Common Good]
  • Complaint: Cleveland housing authority should have done more renovations to accommodate extremely obese tenant [four years ago on Overlawyered]

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Under California law, if you’re digging on your property and you find prehistoric remains, you must contact the state’s Native American Heritage Commission.

The commission then assigns a person known as the “most-likely descendant” to consult with the landowner. But there’s sometimes tenuous or no ancestral ties between the “descendant” and the uncovered bodies, scientists and American Indians said. … Praetzellis and other researchers said it is more important for American Indians to be involved in the moving of ancient remains than to force them to prove a genetic link after being left out entirely for decades.

“They just have to say, ‘Yeah, I feel culturally connected to those remains,'” said Jeff Fentress, a San Francisco State anthropologist. “It is really up to that person to determine how to handle that burial.”

Landowners often pay consulting fees to persons on the designated “descendant” lists, and some persons of American Indian descent say they would like to be on the lists but were left off because of politics. Some Indian activists are also upset that the state law does not give the “descendant” the right to block development. (Matt Krupnick, “Ancient remains causing problems”, Contra Costa Times, Oct. 18). Earlier: Jul. 16, 2005, etc.

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Art repatriation

by Walter Olson on May 28, 2006

At Spiked Online, David Lowenthal has some thoughts on the “heritage wars” and cultural authenticity (Mar. 16)(via A&L Daily)