Ancient art traffickers rob history for millions

Representatives from several Latin American countries met last week totackle the growing problem.

When the Rev. Jorge Chacn entered his chapel on the outskirts of Cuzco to say mass last week, he could scarcely believe his eyes. Just the night before he had left the adobe chapel alongside the San Sebastian Church in perfect order. But when he arrived the next morning, all that was left of a 17th-century, seven-painting series on the resurrection of Lazarus were a few fringes of canvas clinging to empty wooden frames.

Fr. Chacn couldn't say mass that day. "I just wasn't myself, and I was crying and very upset," he recalls. "This is a great loss. These paintings have great historical and cultural value for our people."

Ironically this robbery took place just a few days before a regional workshop, called "Fighting the Traffic of Objects of Cultural Heritage," was held in Cuzco last week. The event brought together representatives of government and private cultural institutes from all over Latin America as well as representatives from art and antiquities units of Interpol, the FBI, and Scotland Yard. The meeting explored ways to stem this growing contraband trade.

The trafficking of cultural artifacts from Latin America - principally pre-Columbian pieces and colonial-era art - brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Across the continent, common criminals and poverty-stricken campesinos rob churches and loot the tombs of ancestors. Traffickers smuggle the goods out of the country and into Europe and the US, where they are often sold for small fortunes to private collectors and even museums.

This type of traffic has taken its toll on other nations too. In countries like Bangladesh and Mali, examples of traditional local folk art are difficult, if not impossible, to find. This is what officials in Latin America want to avoid.

"We will suffer a terrible loss of our cultural heritage, and we will lose our self-esteem and our appreciation for what is ours, if we don't start concerning ourselves with defending our identity and our past," says Lucia Astudillo, Ecuador's representative to the International Council of Museums.

Combatting trafficking

This trade has been difficult for countries in the region to battle. One of the biggest obstacles is loophole-ridden and lax laws. "Our penal code doesn't contemplate sanctions for traffickers. There are small monetary fines, but there are no provisions for jail time like they have in France," says Maria Isabel Gomez of Colombia's Culture Ministry.

While good laws and strong enforcement are necessary, experts say the real problem is education and awareness. "You have to teach people that this is their history, and it belongs in their country. You have to start with very young people and make this part of their education from the beginning," says Linda Poole, of the Office of Cultural Affairs of the Organization of American States. "As they say, if you rob someone's history you are robbing their future."

Conference participants agreed on the need to create art registries and train police and customs agents to fight these crimes. In Peru, 90 percent of the objects confiscated in Lima's international airport are souvenir replicas, while many true artifacts slip by customs. Mexico, on the other hand, has had more success in recovering stolen patrimony since it incorporated antiquities identification into police training curricula.

A cooperative sting

A memorandum of understanding between the US and Peru, officials say, has helped fight this traffic. FBI agent Robert Whitman attended the conference to give a firsthand account of the significance of such bilateral agreements.

Mr. Whitman posed as an art dealer two years ago in Philadelphia and recovered a priceless piece looted from Peru's Royal Sipan tomb, considered the most important archaeological find in the Americas.

The piece, which was being sold for $1.6 million, is now back in Peru. Implicated in the case were an ex-official from the Peruvian government, an ex-police colonel, and the Panamanian general consul in New York, who used a diplomatic pouch to get the piece into the United States.

Bolivia also has a memorandum of understanding with the US; Ecuador is working toward one as well.

Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go. "We are talking about a nonrenewable resource; the more scarce it becomes, the more expensive the pieces will be, and the stronger the traffic will get," says Rafael Goi with the National Anthropology Institute in Buenos Aires.

"That is why we need to find ways to work together," he adds.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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