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RAIDERS OF LOST ART

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"I saw [Allaire] outside a courtroom after my bust," Hester says, "and as we were standing by the elevator he said, `I'm going to get you, Hester.' Now, if I had said that, I would have been arrested for threatening a federal agent." Hester says he remains wary of Allaire, whose name he singsongs with bitterness and sarcasm, and whose picture he keeps on a bulletin board in his office. "It helps me to remember that the government would take me out if they could," he says.

The 1983 bust wasn't Hester's first brush with the law. Allaire says Hester's name first caught the eye of authorities in the late 1970s, when he was subpoenaed to testify in Chicago about a stolen Hopi mask that he had allegedly brokered. He was granted immunity in the Chicago case in return for his testimony, but federal officials took notice, and identified him as a leading artifact scavenger.

Now a U.S. Customs agent, Allaire chased pot hunters like Hester for three years, bringing nearly fifty of them to justice. ("We never lost a case," he says.) Allaire blames a small hard-core circle of professional pot hunters for "99.9 percent of all the damage done to archaeological sites in this state."

"Guys like Hester have the same effect as a big Mixmaster on these sites," Allaire says. "They come in with their dozers and mix up the various strata, turning the ruins into a jumbled mess, just for the pots and stuff. Probably less than 100 guys are responsible for all that damage.

"I don't view these guys as amateur archaeologists. That would be like being an amateur doctor, working on people once in a while for the fun of it."

After his 1983 bust, Hester says he "got more careful, fast." He maintains he no longer digs on state land, and will only broker artifacts he is confident were not stolen from government park land or tribes. The outlaw, he says, has gone legitimate, seeking to act as a spokesperson for the "industry." He has sold most of his collection and inventory to pay for a possible upcoming legal challenge to the state law and to finance a publicity campaign to educate the public about private pot hunting.

"Only 15 percent of the land in this state is private property," he says. "The state should take care of what they've got before messing with my land. Irresponsible pot hunting just isn't a problem anymore, anyway. The only people left after the laws got so tough are people like me, who do it carefully and professionally.

"It's really a question of who owns the past. I say we all do. It's not logically or morally right to cut off science. If you rebury stuff, you can't get that information back. And it's not right to cut off my business, either."

"THESE THINGS AREN'T knickknacks," Minkler of the Hopi tribe, says. "They are sacred, precious artifacts. And the very idea of stirring the remains just to get the pots buried with them is obviously grave robbing--whether they're on private property or not."

Minkler and the Hopis began the drive for state action to protect private sites after more than 200 residents of Cornville, a tiny hamlet just south of Sedona, protested a developer's plans to excavate a 100-room, 800-year-old Sinagua Indian ruin on Sugarloaf Mountain. The developer, who had leased the site from its owner for exploration, backed off on plans to use a bulldozer and backhoe on the property to retrieve artifacts.

It's a common scenario, according to Shereen Lerner, a preservation officer with the state historical preservation office. The forest service has recently begun sponsoring a program that helps involve "sincerely interested" amateur archaeologists in digging established sites, cutting down on the large numbers of "weekenders" who formally excavated ruins and burials haphazardly. However, Lerner maintains that irresponsible pot hunting is still a statewide scourge.

"Things like Cornville occur a lot, [but] we just haven't always been able to catch them in time. Developers sell or lease land all the time just for its archaeological value. And, of course, we have communal sites being decimated in a wholesale way by dozens of pot hunters."

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Darrin Hostetler