Guilty plea in artifact sale

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DENVER – A 66-year-old Grand Junction, Colo. man who sold an illegally obtained Native artifact uncovered in a federal “sting” operation pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in U.S. District Court Aug. 17.

Robert B. Knowlton was indicted by a grand jury last year on four charges that carried a potential sentence of two years imprisonment and a fine of $20,000 on each count, with a separate 10-year sentence and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted of the artifacts’ interstate transport. That indictment was dismissed with his current guilty plea and a scheduled jury trial was canceled.

Under the current agreement, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of violation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act in the sale and transport of a cloud blower or tube pipe whose value had been estimated at less than $500 by experts consulted by federal prosecutors and by Knowlton’s defense counsel.

The charges call for not more than one year imprisonment and up to a $10,000 fine and one year supervised release on each of two counts, but non-binding sentencing guidelines discussed in court suggested a range of 0-6 months in sentencing and a fine in the range of $500 to $5,000 per count.

The FBI and Bureau of Land Management conducted the wider ARPA-violations investigation, which centered in part on illegal trading in the Four Corners juncture of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, an area rich in ancestral Puebloan and other artifacts.

Knowlton was charged with selling an artifact uncovered in a state excavation on BLM lands from which all items found were recorded and destined for museum storage. The pipe did not arrive at the museum and he obtained it from a third party and later mailed it from Colorado to Utah, the court was told.

The price of the pipe was inflated to $750 by a federal informant to whom it was sold and who wanted to place it at the $500-plus ARPA felony level, but its value was actually in a lower range, both sides agreed in court.

Initially, Knowlton was charged with selling and transporting not only the pipe, but also a Midland projectile point and a Hell Gap knife, artifacts which are named for areas where they were first found by archaeologists.

Knowlton was among some 25 people snared in a federal operation in the Four Corners area where pot-hunting has been a long-standing, if illegal, source of income among some residents. He also has had an Internet-based business called “Bob’s Flint Shop” where items for sale appear to have been deleted from the website.

The online business home page states that “all Indian artifacts are fully guaranteed to be from private land with permission from the owner” and that, as a member of the Authentic Artifact Collectors Association, he subscribes to the organization’s rules.

Prosecutions from the federal “sting” operation in which Knowlton was caught became complicated last February, when the government’s key informant shot himself at his home in Salt Lake City. The informant, Ted Gardiner, was the person to whom Knowlton sent the tube pipe, the court was told.

The BLM said removing, collecting and selling artifacts from BLM public lands and National Forests are federally prohibited criminal acts.

“The value of any particular artifact is not that it can be hunted, looted, traded and sold as a collectible novelty treasure. Rather, the true value of cultural resources lies in their context, as well as the sacred and scientific meanings such archaeological artifacts provide us as a people,” BLM said in a statement related to this case.

Indictments were issued last summer to some 25 people in the Four Corners area, according to an announcement by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Many of the charges depended on evidence provided by Gardiner, who was a paid informant working with the FBI.

Knowlton’s sentencing was set for Nov. 19 in U.S. District Court in Denver.