by Tracy C. Brown
Question No. 10: My artifact collection contains one really unusual-looking artifact, a kind I have never seen before. I would like to show it to a professional archaeologist, have him look it over, identify it for me, and tell me how old it is. My collector friends are warning me not to do that. They say professional archaeologists in departments of anthropology, museums, and other professional archaeology venues have a long-time, dishonest, and frequently played con game they use to steal artifacts from collectors like me and ordinary citizens who just walk in off the street with an artifact. They say the con game works something like this:
I will take my artifact to a museum and meet with the professional archaeologist. The archaeologist will welcome me and treat me like his oldest friend. Rather than give me the information on my artifact right then, the archaeologist will ask me to leave the artifact with him for a couple of weeks so he can study it more closely—to give me a better and more thorough opinion about it. Of course, I will do that like most folks will do. Then I will come back two weeks later to pick up the new information and my artifact at a scheduled time. When I inquire at the front desk, they will tell me that the archaeologist I talked to before is not there that day, but I can talk to another archaeologist on the staff. That other archaeologist will come out, talk to me for a minute, and tell me that no one at the museum has ever heard of me or my artifact. I will plead to get my artifact back. Then the archaeologist will angrily tell me to leave the museum and order me to never come back again. I will never get the information I requested, and I will never see my artifact again.
My collector buddies have left me with the impression that this con game is played very often, and they regularly advise artifact collectors and ordinary citizens all over the country to avoid showing artifacts to professional archaeologists for this reason. They also tell them to never leave an artifact overnight or for any other long length of time with a professional archaeologist—or they will never, ever see their artifact again. Is all of this really true?
No. It is not true. “Come now, and let us reason together…” (Isaiah 1:18). If a widespread and often repeated con game like this actually exists among professional archaeologists in the United States, I would know about it after being around professional archaeologists and artifact collectors most of my life. I do not play such con games with artifact collectors or ordinary citizens—and neither does any other professional archaeologist I have ever known. While a rare bad apple may exist in every social barrel, most professional archaeologists and museum directors are ethical, honest, and conscientious people who try their level best to do the right thing, and they succeed most of the time. That being the case, stealing legal, privately owned artifacts from artifact collectors or ordinary citizens through some nationwide, know-the-secret-handshake con game does not ring true to me.
Almost nothing escapes the notice of the American news media (both print and electronic). Editors and reporters are constantly sniffing nearly every nook and cranny of the United States for truly interesting stories. What reporter would be able to resist printing this headline:
Local Indiana Jones Runs Con Game to Steal Artifacts from Citizens
If a widespread (or even just local) con game like this were to really exist, it would make big headlines in the local news media and national news media. I have not seen any old or recent stories in the news media about this supposed con game.
If a professional archaeologist did steal an artifact from a person, do you seriously think that person is going to simply shrug their shoulders and go home to brood? No——of course not——in most instances! That person would do the same thing I or anyone else would do. Go to their local police department, get an attorney, solicit a judge to issue a search warrant, and come down hard on the professional archaeologist (and their institution) who stole the artifact in question. Moreover, if this supposed con game were implemented often by professional archaeologists all over our country, artifact collectors and ordinary citizens would be up in arms about it and leading street demonstrations. Huge numbers of professional archaeologists would be cooling their heels for theft in local jails or state prisons. That has not happened in our American past, and it is not happening now.
No professional archaeologist has ever mentioned the existence of this supposed con game to me. I have heard about it only from the artifact collectors who pass it around by word of mouth (and occasionally in casual written form at on-line artifact collector forums). The whole notion of this con game is part of what I call artifact collector folklore.
Frankly, I am inclined to formally define this so-called professional archaeologist’s con game as nothing more than a widespread urban legend among American artifact collectors. The original sources of such urban legends are often hard to identify. Some urban legends are rooted in a real past incident that involved a bit of truth, something misunderstood to be truth, or some odd perversion of the truth. I cannot say for certain where this urban legend about a professional archaeologists’ con game to steal artifacts began, but I have one really excellent historical candidate for where it may have begun.
It may have begun with a series of events and actions that occurred after the first discovery of an Adena sandstone tablet exhibiting engraved bird heads. This artifact was found in 1942 by a 12-year-old boy who was digging for artifacts within a bluff top mound in Parkersburg, West Virginia. This boy’s name was Edward Low, and the artifact he found there is widely known today as the Low Tablet.
The full story of Edward Low and his tablet is far too long and convoluted to describe in full here. Suffice it to say that a much older Edward Low eventually took his Low Tablet to the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) so a famous Ohio archaeologist, Dr. Raymond Baby (pronounced “Bobby”), could closely examine it. Mr. Low left the artifact with this archaeologist and the OHS Museum for 36 years.
In the year 2007, after Mr. Low had found out the incredibly high amount of money the Low Tablet was worth, he wanted the OHS Museum to give it back to him. The OHS Museum claimed that Mr. Low had donated the Low Tablet to the Museum in 1971, and the museum had old internal paperwork indicating that it had indeed been a gift. Furthermore, Mr. Low admitted in a legal document (Defendant’s First Request for Admissions) that on September 2, 1971, he had called Dr. Baby on the telephone and told him that he would give the Low Tablet to the OHS—all the while knowing that the OHS had long considered it to be a gift. Mr. Low later claimed that he had merely loaned the tablet to the OHS. In an attempt to get his artifact back, Mr. Low filed a major lawsuit against the OHS in the case of Edward Low vs. Ohio Historical Society. The OHS won this initial legal action, but an appeal was soon filed. More legal wrangling ensued over the next several years. Mr. Low died one day while this wrangling was still underway, but his surviving family kept it going. An Ohio court eventually dismissed the case. In the end, the Low family was never able to legally reclaim the Low Tablet as its personal property, and it remained in the possession of the OHS.
Today the Edward Low Dispute (as I call it), and the now closed legal storm surrounding it, are legendary in the American artifact collector community. Many artifact collectors swear up one side and down the other that Edward Low and his family were unfairly and royally screwed by the OHS and the court system. Based on no particular evidence at all, numerous artifact collectors have speculated that the OHS forged the internal documents indicating the Low Tablet was a donation. Most of the artifact collectors who make such wild claims have never even read the original court records. They have just read highly biased artifact collector tomes about it, or they have heard collector grapevine gossip about the Edward Low Dispute. They have chosen to believe whatever is said just because a fellow artifact collector said it——————-and “by God” everyone must surely know it is impossible for an artifact collector to ever be wrong about anything (LOL).
American court documents are a matter of public record in the United States, and they are available to the general public. I am one of the few people who has actually obtained and read the original court documents pertinent to this dispute. After studying all of those documents carefully and in detail, I have concluded to my own personal satisfaction that the Low Tablet really was a gift and should have remained at the OHS Museum. The contents of the OHS internal documents and court documents clearly indicated that to me. That was also the conclusion of the jury in the initial trial (Edward Low vs. Ohio Historical Society).
The Edward Low Dispute and the folklore surrounding it offer today’s American artifact collectors a key opportunity they desperately want and need. Since at least 1960, artifact collectors and artifact collecting (either as a hobby or as a material investment) have been under unrelenting assault by the professional archaeology community in the United States. The urban legend about a professional archaeology con game to slyly steal artifacts from artifact collectors and ordinary citizens has become a useful public relations (PR) tool to stab back at professional archaeologists in vengeance for all of the emotional pain they have inflicted on artifact collectors. Furthermore, properly distorted and finessed, the Edward Low Dispute, all by itself, has become a figurative but quite useful quick slip of the switchblade knife between the ribs of professional archaeologists for the same reason—vengeance that gives the professional archaeology side bad PR.
In light of all that I have written above, I have come to my own personal conclusion about this so-called con game many artifact collectors believe professional archaeologists are running to steal artifacts from collectors and ordinary citizens. I am hereby calling bullshit on it. Do you hear that artifact collectors? This long-time, con game accusation of yours is nothing but pure bullshit.
Sure. If you dig up a large carved statue like “The Ancestor,” which is the Tennessee State Artifact, and you take it to a professional archaeologist and say:
Look at this huge artifact Fred and me just dug up on Tennessee Valley Authority land…
Well, you just openly confessed to violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and other federal laws—including the one against theft of federal property. That is one artifact you will never get back—along with your pickup truck—because that statue was never your property to begin with. It is stolen property that must go back to its original owner (TVA and the American public). Anything so blatant as that lies outside the boundaries of this con game I have heard so much about from artifact collectors over the years.
The original mistake both sides made in the Edward Low Dispute was their failure to draw up and sign a legal, mutually binding artifact loan contract or artifact donation contract. Either document would have left no basis for any dispute over final ownership of the Low Tablet.
Paranoia and anxiety run wild in the American artifact collector community these days. Nonetheless, if an artifact collector ever wants to show a legally obtained and legally owned artifact to a professional archaeologist or museum director—and she is afraid she will never see her artifact again—all she has to do is have her attorney draw up a contract (or other written agreement) saying that the artifact is being loaned for archaeological examination for a specified period of time. A few sharp, close-up, color photographs of the artifact with a centimeter scale in each photograph should be part of the contract. The owner of the artifact and the professional archaeologist or museum director must both sign the legally binding contract or agreement. When the specified time in the contract or agreement expires, the professional archaeologist or museum director must surrender the artifact to its owner. That should dispel most of the unwarranted collector or citizen paranoia and anxiety about temporarily leaving an artifact with one of us professional archaeologists for examination.