This past April Fool’s Day in Waldron, Indiana, a cavalry of FBI agents swarmed the farm where 91-year-old Don Miller was born and still lives today. Miller leads a pretty simple life: He practices the organ and sometimes makes calls on his ham radio, but he rarely leaves his house except to go to church. He is beloved by his neighbors.
Not exactly the typical profile of an FBI target.
But Miller wasn’t always this much of a homebody. Over the course of 60 years, he has traveled the world, picking up a wide array of art treasures and relics. Though the collection isn’t well-known outside central Indiana and Miller’s social circle, his thousands of items include: ancient arrowheads and Jivaro shrunken heads from South America, petrified wooly mammoth tusks, the egg of a T. rex, pottery from Hopi and Zuni tribes, an Egyptian sarcophagus and a Chinese terra-cotta soldier.
“I was blown away, ” says Larry Zimmerman, an anthropology and museum studies professor at Indiana University who joined the FBI investigation and saw Miller’s pieces for the first time. “It’s a huge collection for a private individual.” Zimmerman says some of Miller’s pieces rival the Native American collections of many museums.
When the FBI came last month, they brought dozens of agents, art crime experts, archeologists and artifacts specialists. Spending several days scouring his house, they pitched a massive yellow tent on Miller’s property for about a week to examine his artifacts. They wound up carting away hundreds of pieces for further inspection.
At a time when there’s more scrutiny than ever on the provenance of art and the pedigree of the collector, Miller is a throwback to a time when you didn’t necessarily need to be wealthy or connected to pick up valuable pieces, and you didn’t need to be an archaeologist to get access to interesting artifacts. You might call him Indiana’s Indiana Jones.
Miller got the collecting bug as a kid, picking up arrowheads that he found walking around in the fields, and it became his chief passion as he got older. He gathered up artifacts when he went on church missionary trips overseas, and during his vacations. But Miller didn’t always collect the conventional way. Instead of making purchases from local collectors or galleries, he sometimes went on digs—often digs that he had brokered with local officials. One longtime friend and neighbor, Amy Mohr, describes how Miller prepped for one trip by stuffing an entire a suitcase full of cigarettes that he used as barter for precious goods. “He goes all over the world and is good at talking to the locals to find this stuff, ” she says.
FBI at Miller's residence
When we called Miller’s house a couple of weeks ago to find out more about his art trove and the FBI’s interest, he answered the phone but then said he wouldn’t be available to talk. At some point soon thereafter, his phone number was disconnected. But a handful of Miller’s friends, interviewed by phone, have helped shed light on how he acquired his art and other defining moments in his long life, including his work on the atomic bomb.
A couple of the people we interviewed say Miller sometimes ran into hairy situations during his artifact-collecting trips to more than 200 different countries. He even had his own Raiders of the Lost Ark moment: One time, in the ’70s, he encountered the Libyan military when he was on a dig, says Rick Bolt, who worked with Miller, a nuclear engineer, at the Naval Avionics Center in Indianapolis, which later became Raytheon. “They were in western Egypt at some ruins, and the truckloads of people in his expedition were heading down this road, and all of a sudden the military ambushed them.”
They were held at gunpoint and interrogated for several hours, their passports snatched, Bolt says. “They thought they were CIA and trying to infiltrate their country, ” he says. The soldiers eventually released Miller and his team, but warned them, “We don’t want to see you again or it will not be pleasant, ” Bolt remembers Miller telling him.
Another time, Miller was stopped with keepsakes and forced to hand them back. In 2004, he managed to grab lemon-sized cannonballs from the citadel in earthquake-ravaged Haiti during a missionary trip. But when Miller tried to bring them aboard the plane on his flight back, they were confiscated. “They said, ‘We know what these are, and you can’t have these.’ He just let them take it, ” says Mohr, who was on the trip.