Indian Museum Challenged with Missing Art and Artificacts

A former director of the Mid-America All-Indian Center museum said Monday that some artifacts that have vanished from the museum were there as recently as last year.

"I was in the vault area about a year ago and saw some of the pieces that are now missing," said Jerry Martin, now director of the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology at Wichita State University.

He said the pieces he saw included "high-value jewelry."

And he said that while he didn't do a close check, the museum's art collection -- which is now missing several valuable paintings and prints -- appeared to be intact at the time.

Martin ran the Indian Center museum from 1991 to 1999 and has been called in by the city of Wichita, which recently took over the operation of the center, to help identify items missing from the collection.

The investigation so far has found that more than 270 artworks and artifacts cannot be accounted for.

Martin said that when he visited the museum a year ago, the vault was slightly disordered, but "probably about 80 percent of it was still the way I left it five years before. When we went in a month ago, it was a shambles."

City officials have said that their work has been complicated by a lack of documented photos of the items in the museum collection. Federal officials have said that they need such information to try to recover the artwork using the FBI's stolen-art database.

Martin said there were slides taken of most of the significant objects, although they were not catalogued by museum inventory numbers.

He said that he and some others who are familiar with the collection will be working with the city to match pictures to the missing artifacts.

"We should be able to help identify the objects," he said.

Larry Zimmerman, professor of museum science at Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis and an expert on American Indian artifacts, said theft is "absolutely common where museums are not professionally run."

In addition to poor photo documentation, city officials assigned to aid the Indian Center's recovery have said that records were in disarray and there appeared to be poor control over who had access to keys.

Zimmerman said, "There's a very large, worldwide market for Indian artifacts and contemporary Indian paintings."

He said most dealers are legitimate and will check the origin of pieces against an international database of stolen art. But there are some, he said, who might look the other way when an artifact of high value but suspect origin turns up.

The bulk of the illicit trafficking in Native American artifacts takes place among individuals.

Zimmerman said some collectors will put out the word that they want a particular type of artifact or a painting by a particular artist. That lets dishonest people with access to museum pieces know how much they can make if they steal something, he said.

"People know people who know people," he said. "That's how it works."

Martin is the second former Indian Center official to place the center's problems in a recent time frame.

Last week, Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Bill Gale, who served as the Indian Center's financial officer from May to November 2003, said the center had climbed out of a $40,000 hole and its books were nearly balanced when he left.

A year later, the facility was $135,000 in debt and had to ask the city for a $175,000 loan. The city owns the Indian Center building and pays for its maintenance and utilities, but operations were handled by a private board and staff.