NYHIST-L Archives

December 1998


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Phil Lord <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 21 Dec 1998 12:36:47 -0500
text/plain (30 lines)
Actually this has nothing to do with bears, but two out of three ain't bad.

Increasingly, over the past few years, I have seen the emergence of the relic collector, or metal detector hobbyist, as a component of the burden, and opportunity, of museum and public agency collections management. And when I use the term "collections management" I am including all the work that goes into preservation of sites as well as objects, for sites are merely one form of artifact repository.

As over the counter technology becomes more sophisticated, and the declining cost of seemingly everything electronic these days places in the hands of diggers and divers tools which only the military had a decade ago, we are seeing more and more objects of historic interest or significance moving about the "marketplace". And here the term is used in the broadest sense, to include the trade and donation of artifacts as well as their sale.

I started this message using the term "emergence", but in the often covert activity of digging and collecting archeological objects, it may be that it is the activity which has emerged into the daylight, rather than the scope of the activity that has grown. Recently people are openly offering Revolutionary War and Civil War artifacts, which they admit they dug up, on the Internet auction sites.

But whatever the cause, people who manage public or semi-public collections, will increasingly be offered artifacts that were obtained by nonprofessional excavation. As life-long collectors grow old and pass on, their collections are often offered to a public venue as a way of preserving them. And as programs aimed at bringing collectors into a more socially conscious frame of mind begin to have their effect, collections previously secreted away in garages and basements will now be "turned over" to museums, historical societies and other public institutions.
The ethical, and legal, issue, and the one I would like to see discussed here, is what is the appropriate response to the offer of these things, wonderful or mundane as they may be?

First of all, in New York State, objects collected from public lands belong to the State. All objects on public lands belong to the State - or more correctly "the People of the State of New York", for it is the interest of all the people which the "State" (in the narrow sense) is mandated to protect. Additionally, all objects on public lands of historic or scientific significance are also protected by other laws from being removed, excavated, damaged, etc.

But really it is much simpler than that. Things buried in the ground belong to the landowner - any landowner. If the metal detectorist (I think this is a term used in the UK) carefully avoids some state or federal property and digs up the objects on private land, he is no more at liberty to keep them than if dug on public lands. The farmer or homeowner owns these objects, and the collector needs formal transfer of title before he can claim them as his own.

This is a lesson that hit hard a while back, when professional archeologists who excavated, often for years and always with permission of the landowner, realized that the objects could be re-claimed by the owner unless they had executed an agreement up front that the university or museum could keep them.

So the dilemma, as I see it, is the public institution wanting to "salvage" these pilfered objects from going to the local landfill or swap meet, but having no hope of clear title. While the collector may be more than willing to sign them over to the museum, the collector himself has no title to them, and there is little hope of getting that, in most cases.

So much more so for the person who tries to auction or sell these things over the Internet or by any other means. They are not any more free to be sold than any other type of "hot" item, stolen from its righful owner. 

So that is the case. Is there an ethical imperative? Is there a practical solution? In taking the high road and rejecting these objects, do we condemn them to the very type of open market disposal we dread?  By accepting them do we place ourselves at risk? Any reactions or comments?

Philip Lord, Jr.
Acting Chief, Historical Survey
New York State Museum
Albany, NY 12230
[log in to unmask]