Southwest's missions struggle to fend off art thieves

Seventeenth-century statues are disappearing, and along with them, pieces of cultural history.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Late on the night of July 31, the robbers arrived at Mission San Juan Capistrano, armed with drills, crowbars, and flashlights. Their goal: to steal three 17th-century statues from the Spanish mission's altar.

Whoever they were, the robbers clearly knew what they were doing. They drilled holes in the mission's wooden door, which allowed them to lift a crossbar on the other side. They walked straight to the altar, took the three statues, and carried them off in a two-wheel cart to their car in a nearby parking lot, where the gate wasn't locked.

The value of the statues is estimated to be anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 combined. The police have no suspects and very few leads.

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"There's a market for these things across the world," says Officer Al Ballew, spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department. "This was not a normal burglar. They knew where these things were, they went in, they got them, and they left."

Sadly, the theft at Mission San Juan Capistrano, a better-looking cousin of the historic Alamo mission in downtown San Antonio, was not an isolated incident. The Mission Concepcon, just a few miles away from Mission San Juan has also reported the theft of a priceless statue recently, and several Spanish missions in California have also reported the theft of religious art, including a tabernacle door. It's a sign that no church is too sacred, and no act too callous, in the sometimes lawless world of antiquities.

"The church is just starting to realize she's been sitting on a gold mine," says Brother Edward Loch, archivist for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of San Antonio. "We are being targeted for thefts. The church has always taken these items as objects of devotion, but now we're saying, 'Wait a minute, they're artistic items.' And we have had no conception of what people are willing to pay for them."

To prevent further thefts, the archdiocese has installed motion detectors in each of its missions, all of which were built between 1720 and 1731, and has hired a security company to monitor those devices 24 hours a day.

Because the five missions of San Antonio are co-managed by the National Park Service, in an unusual relationship started in 1983, park rangers are able to provide security during the day.

But in many ways, the security is arriving too late: the most valuable items have already been taken.

"We're closing the barn after the horses are already gone," says one church official.

Signs of the break-in at the Mission San Juan Capistrano are still visible today. The large, elaborately carved oak door still has holes and splinters where thieves rammed it open. Three podiums behind the altar, once home to statues of Saint Joseph, San Juan Capistrano, and Saint Francis of Assisi are now occupied temporarily by potted plants.

A statue of the Virgin Mary, the last remaining 17th-century Spanish statue in the mission, stands off in a corner, dressed in a hand-stitched white satin gown made by one of the parishioners, staring forlornly up at the high wood-beam ceiling.

"As far as statues go, a statue is a statue; they're only there to remind us of the heroes of the faith," says the Rev. Jim Galvin, pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano. "People are more important."

"But for the parishioners, there are some people who feel very hurt that their place of worship has been desecrated," says Fr. Jim, who leads a small eclectic parish of Anglos, Latinos, and Coahuiltecan Indians on the south side of San Antonio. "Others are very angry that property that belongs to the community has been stolen."

The mission has been hit by thieves fairly steadily since the Irish priest arrived a year and a half ago. One day, they took the mission's microphone sound system. Then some kids started carving their initials into Fr. Jim's truck, and pushed it down the river embankment. But all these activities were just the acts of "thugs," says Fr. Jim, quite apart from the sophisticated burglary of the Spanish antiquities.

"Apparently, there's a lot of art lovers who buy this sort of thing for themselves to show off to their guests," he says. But whoever it was, "they stole works of art that are important to the nation. People come here from all over the world to see them."

The missions had fallen into disrepair over the last century. In 1983, Congress created a national park to protect and restore this significant part of Southwestern history.

There has been only one break in the case so far, and it had humorous consequences. On the weekend after the thefts, an advertisement appeared in the San Antonio Express-News, offering for sale two 17th-century Spanish statues of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Joseph. Price: $2,500 for both.

Police called up the number in Victoria, Texas, surrounded the house, and soon realized their error. The owner of the house showed the police his two statues. They were Spanish all right, but just a few inches tall, compared with the four-foot statues stolen from the church. They had been family heirlooms. What looked like audacity turned out to be bad timing.

With no leads, and police speculating that the statues could be as far away as Mexico City, or New York, or Tokyo, church officials say they are looking for ways to assuage the concerns of their parishioners.

One priest, the Rev. Baltizar Janacek, traveled to Santa Fe, N.M., to buy an inferior but adequate 18th-century statue of Saint Joseph for Mission San Juan Capistrano.

"It may be someone stealing to support a drug habit," says Brother Edward Loch, the archivist. "We would hope they're sorry for their sins, and we would hope they could return them. But if they have been sold up the line, it might be 20 or 30 years before these things show up."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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