A Florida dealer who bought and sold fossils and artifacts, and ran an online museum displaying some of his wares, admitted Friday that he helped smuggle relics from Pakistani grave sites and sold some of them for profit.
John Bryan McNamara, 51, who lives in the Orlando area, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to a smuggling conspiracy charge, acknowledging in an agreement with prosecutors that he had worked with Pakistanis to import antiquities from their country into the United States in a way that would not draw unwanted from customs officers.
In a conversation with a reporter after his plea, McNamara said one of the men had reached out to him from out of the blue, and he was interested initially because that region of the world was a “huge area for ancient trade,” possibly offering scientifically significant materials that had “never been studied.”
“It was intriguing,” McNamara said.
According to his plea agreement, though, McNamara did not have the proper approvals to import some of the antiquities, and he and the two Pakistani men tried to evade scrutiny — in one instance, according to the plea agreement, claiming a shipment that was worth more than $20,000 had a value of $500.
McNamara’s case ended up in federal court in Alexandria because a shipment that had 1,350 artifacts “of the type that are typically found in ancient tombs that date from 6,000-years-old to 500-years-old” went through Dulles International Airport. McNamara acknowledged as a part of his plea, and after the hearing, that he had bought bronze and iron axes, spears, arrowheads, swords and daggers — some of which came from Pakistani grave sites — and did not always seek the appropriate approvals.
According to his plea agreement, McNamara had real access to and knowledge of artifacts, though he said he formally studied accounting at the University of North Carolina. McNamara said he taught himself ancient history and supported his family through his legal work as an artifacts dealer.
McNamara’s plea said that he “has personally handled thousands of genuine metal artifacts, as well as forgeries, and is able to identify authentic ancient metal objects, including items from the Iron, Bronze and Neolithic ages.”
McNamara founded the World Museum of Man Web site, a sort-of virtual museum that has pictures and short descriptions of artifacts, including masks, arrowheads, knives and axes. According to his plea, he sold smuggled artifacts through another company he ran, Paleo Direct Inc.
McNamara said he kept, rather than sold, most of the materials he imported from Pakistan, as his interest was mainly in the scientific value of the relics rather than the monetary value. He said he did not think initially that what he was doing was illegal and, in some ways, thought he was rescuing precious materials.
But McNamara acknowledged that he realized that willful ignorance of the law was no excuse for his crime, and he did sell some of what he imported. He admitted that he and the others conspired to create fake documents indicating that their shipments had Pakistani government approval, and that he lied to U.S. Homeland Security investigators looking into the matter. The two people with whom he worked are not named in the plea agreement and have not been publicly charged.
McNamara said he now plans to transition out of the antiquities business — though he said he still must work to support his wife and two daughters, one of whom is battling cancer and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. McNamara said authorities seem to have cracked down on importing artifacts and fossils since the 9/11 attacks, and he worries that the valuable antiquities he imported will now “be thrown into a pot and neglected.” His attorney, David B. Smith, said authorities will probably seek to have them forfeited.
McNamara is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 29, and he faces a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison, though federal sentencing guidelines will probably call for a shorter term.
Candice Norwood contributed to this report.