The Feathers That Caused a Flap
Thursday, January 22, 2004
The federal investigation into the tribal art collection of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small started with a telephone call in November 2000 to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service saying that published pictures of the artifacts showed feathers from endangered species.
More than three years later, the investigation has led to a misdemeanor charge against Small. He is expected to plead guilty tomorrow.
The caller, who was not identified in official documents of the Fish & Wildlife Service, suggested that the agency review articles about the collection that appeared in Smithsonian magazine and The Washington Post. "The articles revealed that Small had a large collection of tribal art which he claimed was authentic. The article photos depicted feathers from various protected species of birds," according to an agency report.
Reports in the case file involving Small were obtained by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act. In a letter in the file, Small says: "I understand that one or more of these articles may have caused someone to approach the Fish & Wildlife Service about whether our collection had been imported into the United States lawfully."
The file tracks the probe from that initial call to a recommendation in March 2001 that the case be closed without any action being taken. The case was reopened a few months later after new complaints were received, and the continued investigation determined that the collection did contain parts of endangered species of birds, including the jabiru, roseate spoonbill and crested caracara.
Earlier this month, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina filed the misdemeanor charge against Small in U.S. District Court in Raleigh. The case is being heard in North Carolina because the items involved were purchased in the state in 1998, according to the Fish & Wildlife papers. Small is not expected to receive a fine or jail time, although he is turning over some feathered art objects to the government.
Small became secretary of the Smithsonian, the largest museum complex in the world, in January 2000, roughly two years after the purchase. During his career as an executive with Citibank/Citicorp, Small worked in South America and expanded his interest in tribal art. The collection in question is housed at a gallery in Northwest Washington that Small had specially converted for the display. It contains masks, capes, baskets, costumes and headdresses, many of which are decorated with vivid feathers.
Small addressed some of Fish & Wildlife's questions in a long letter, dated Feb. 12, 2001, that he said he hoped would settle the investigation. He said his lawyers had advised him that "a written statement from me might bring closure to the matter. I am eager to resolve the matter expeditiously and without additional expense."
Small traced his interest in the collection to an exhibition of Amazonian tribal art that he had seen at the National Geographic's museum in Washington. "I had been so impressed by the exhibition that I called Mr. [Gilbert] Grosvenor to ask if the pieces in the show belonged to the National Geographic Society and whether they might be for sale."
Small said Grosvenor, the society's chairman, introduced him to a collector, who showed him part of the collection at Duke University's Art Museum. Small indicated that he spent considerable time investigating the collector's reputation through a series of meetings with curators at national museums. He told the government the bill of sale was executed Feb. 14, 1998, for 1,000 pieces.
The artifacts were purchased from Rosita Heredia, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in 2002. Heredia said she sold the collection to Small, the newspaper reported, because he could "keep it whole at a time when she could no longer maintain it and was considering dividing it."
In his letter, parts of which were redacted by Fish & Wildlife, Small says the seller "represented in the sale document that 'all permits necessary to own and hold the (collection) and to transport them from Brazil to the United States have been or will be obtained and are or will be in full force and effect.' " He said he submitted the import permits, obtained from the seller, to the investigators. "My attorneys also have informed me that, based on their review, none of the species list on [redacted] permits is a listed species under the federal Endangered Species Act regulations. Furthermore, I can state categorically that I have no knowledge that any species in the collection is listed under the Endangered Species Act or that [redacted] imported any pieces in the collection other than in a lawful manner."
On the strength of that assurance, Fish & Wildlife's investigating agent recommended on March 6, 2001, that the case be closed.
Four months later, the case was reopened, although officials for Fish & Wildlife would not give any specific reasons why. Some published reports said the agency had received additional information from bird experts. Yesterday an official at Fish & Wildlife said he couldn't comment on the case until after tomorrow's hearing.
The Smithsonian has one of the best-known bird identification laboratories in the world. However, none of the work on the Small collection was done by Smithsonian personnel. It was conducted by experts at Fish & Wildlife's forensic laboratory. In general, feathers are identified by simple matching, examining the distinctive down or by DNA.
On Tuesday the Smithsonian Board of Regents said it had been aware of the investigation and said the circumstances would not "impair the Secretary's ability to continue serving the Smithsonian Institution in the excellent manner in which he has performed over the past four years."
Small is a Smithsonian employee who is paid out of private funds called the trust. Each trust employee receives a copy of a Code of Conduct that gives guidelines for personal actions. One guideline reads, "Employees will not engage in criminal, dishonest, or other conduct adversely affecting the reputation or operations of the Smithsonian Institution." Any review of Small would be handled by the Board of Regents.
Staff writer James V. Grimaldi contributed to this report.