Amazonian Tribal Art or Endangered Species?

While secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lawrence Small violated federal bird protection regulations when he imported Amazonian tribal art that, unbeknownst to him, contained feathers of endangered birds.

Amazonian Tribal Art or Endangered Species?

The government entrusted Lawrence M. Small, the former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, with overseeing America’s national museums, research centers and libraries and the National Zoo. When he opened his own private art collection, however, Small found himself entangled in allegations that he was violating a federal law related to protected bird species. As punishment for his violation, the government required Small to serve a hard labor sentence of 100 hours, involving planting trees or other such outdoor projects for the community.

Prior to entering public service, Small visited South America several times as a bank executive and became enamored with Amazonian art. In 1998, Small purchased approximately 1,000 pieces of Amazonian tribal art from anthropologist Rosita Herita for roughly $400,000. The collection contained various exotic headdresses, capes, masks and armbands adorned with vibrantly colored feathers. Small contends that he submitted the appropriate permit and legal documentation necessary for the purchase. Small believed none of the feathers nor species included in the collection were protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Photographs of Small’s collection were published in Smithsonian magazine in 2000. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later claimed several pictures showed feathers from endangered species, including the Scarlet Macaw, Harpy Eagle and Roseate Spoonbill. Possession of a collection with such feathers constitutes a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. Small, who was hired for the Smithsonian position because of his management rather than research skills, argued he had no prior knowledge that some of the feathers came from endangered bird species, and that he sought and acquired the proper documentation for the purchase. Assistant U.S. Attorney Banumathi Rangarajan, however, contended Small could not have been an uninformed buyer because of the extensive amount of research he already performed with regard to the art and the time he spent in South America. Small, responding to the charges against him, commented, “I can state categorically that I [had] no knowledge that any species in the collection [was] listed under the Endangered Species Act or that [I] imported any pieces in the collection other than in a lawful manner.”

Small pled guilty to federal misdemeanor charges related to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in January 2004. His position with the Smithsonian was unaffected, but Small was sentenced to two years probation, required to perform 100 hours of community service and submit a letter of apology to five national publications as a result of the incident. Small had hoped to read books on endangered species and to lobby Congress to alter the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as his community service. Instead, in June, 2005, a federal judge ordered Small to perform physical labor on a “project or projects designed to improve the natural environment.”

Sources: Washington Post (January 21, 2004; January 22, 2004; January 24, 2004), Associated Press (January 26, 2004), The Washington Examiner (August 1, 2005), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Archaeology Magazine (September 19, 2002)

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