Conviction for selling Indian artifacts upheld

July 25, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- A federal appeals court panel in Chicago has upheld the conviction of a southern Indiana man accused of selling artifacts looted from an ancient American Indian burial mound.

A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a federal law that prohibits illegal trafficking in artifacts was intended to protect archaeological sites on private property as well as those on land owned by the federal government or by Indian tribes.

The ruling last week is significant because it was the first time a federal appeals court panel had addressed the issue.

Most criminal prosecutions under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979 involve thefts from ancient sites on federal land or Indian-owned property.

Lawyers for Arthur Gerber, a photographer in Tell City, Ind., and founder of one of the nation's largest Indian-artifact shows, had argued that the statute was never intended to protect sites on private property.

Gerber was charged with trafficking in artifacts that had been illegally removed from a Hopewell burial mound on property owned by General Electric Co., near Mount Vernon in southwestern Indiana.

The burial mound, now known to be one of the larger Hopewell sites, was discovered by accident when a heavy-equipment operator cut into it during a highway construction project in 1988. The man, who knew Gerber was a collector of Native American artifacts, agreed to sell him what he had found and show him the site for $6,000, according to the appeals court opinion.

Hopewell is the name given to a civilization that settled in the Ohio River Valley and built burial mounds between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. Thousands of artifacts were removed from the Indiana site, including tooled leather, copper axheads, jewelry and rare silver instruments with the reeds intact.

Gerber entered a conditional guilty plea on the charge last year, while reserving the right to pursue his challenge to the law.

Several groups of amateur archaeologists supported his appeal, contending their right to seek ancient relics was at stake.

But the appeals court said, "There is no right to go upon another person's land, without his permission, to look for valuable objects buried in the land and take them if you find them."

Harvey Silets, a Chicago lawyer who represented Gerber, said further appeals were under consideration. Gerber was sentenced to a year in prison but has been free pending resolution of his appeal.

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