WASHINGTON – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned on Thursday 14 stolen and looted cultural paintings and artifacts to the government of Peru at a repatriation ceremony at the Embassy of Peru in Washington, D.C.
The items were recovered in five separate investigations by special agents of ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in New York; West Virginia; Wilmington, Delaware; and Austin and Houston, Texas.
Returned to the Peruvian people were nine religious paintings, a monstrance and four archaeological items that date back more than 2,000 years. The return of this cultural property is the culmination of a long, hard fight by HSI, INTERPOL and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices from the District of Delaware, the Southern District of New York, and the Southern District of Texas. Participating in today’s repatriation were ICE Director John Morton, Peruvian Ambassador to the United States Harold Forsyth and U.S. Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Also in attendance were INTERPOL Washington Director Timothy A. Williams and representatives from the Southern District of New York and District of Delaware U.S. Attorney’s Offices; U.S. Department of State Cultural Heritage Center; Smithsonian Institution; and HSI special agents from the respective investigative offices.
“The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime and has become a world-wide phenomenon that transcends frontiers,” said ICE Director John Morton. “The teamwork and cooperation that exists between ICE Homeland Security Investigations and our partners in the global law enforcement community and intelligence world made it possible for us to secure these cultural artifacts and to ensure that they are returned to the government of Peru.”
“These recovered pieces of art are part of our cultural heritage as a nation, but in fact, belongs to all humanity, said Ambassador Harold Forsyth. “Thanks to the professional work of the specialized agencies of the United States, and the commitment of both governments to prosecute, punish and eradicate trafficking in cultural property, we can say now that this successful operation has become an example of cooperation between our two countries. When these pieces return to their place of origin, they will become testimony to the friendship between two peoples.”
“Today’s repatriation is an example of what can be accomplished when law enforcement partners and government leaders from around the world work together in pursuit of a common goal,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole. “Like other criminal acts, cultural property crimes are increasingly borderless and require a coordinated response between countries. Our action proves our commitment to standing with essential allies like Peru in fulfilling our international responsibilities, vigorously enforcing the law, and – above all – seeking justice on behalf of victims and their families.”
The collection of items returned includes:
- Nine 18th century religious paintings from the Cusco region of Peru;
- A pre-Columbian Chimu-Inca double-chambered blackware vessel that whistles when it contains liquid;
- An ancient Andean textile that may have been used as a woman’s belt;
- A Spanish colonial silver gilt and enamel monstrance from the 1700s. This type of receptacle was and is still used in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches to display the consecrated Eucharist;
- A ceramic jar from the Moche culture that portrays farmers and fishermen who lived on the river valleys and the arid coastal plain of northern Peru during 100 to 800 A.D.; and
- A Peruvian bronze ceremonial blade, or tumi, used by the Inca and pre-Inca cultures in the Peruvian coastal region as a sacrificial ceremonial knife.
Of the objects returned on Thursday, two of the Cusco oil paintings – Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and Virgin and Child – were sold at an auction house in Austin. Seven other Peruvian antique paintings were being sold from a Houston gallery. The pre-Columbian Chimu-Inca whistling pot and Andean textile were being sold on eBay. In an undercover Internet operation, HSI special agents in West Virginia targeted sellers of illicit pre-Columbian artifacts operating from this Internet site. The monstrance was listed for sale at Christie’s auction house in New York and HSI special agents discovered it was consigned by an art collector associated with museums in Puerto Rico and Denver. HSI’s investigation revealed that the monstrance had been stolen from Saint Stephen the Martyr, a small Catholic church in Yaurisque, located in the Cusco region of Peru. The Moche ceramic jar and the bronze ceremonial knife were consigned by an estate trust in order to be sold at an auction house in Madison, N.J., and necessitated grand jury subpoenas issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware.
HSI’s investigation determined that the objects were removed from Peru in violation of Peruvian law and brought into the United States in violation of U.S. Customs laws and regulations. Specifically, the objects had been removed in violation of a U.S.-Peru bilateral agreement negotiated by the U.S. Department of State and enacted in 1997, which restricts the importation of pre-Columbian artifacts and colonial-era religious objects into the United States without proper export documents.
HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 71 attaché offices in 47 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.
HSI specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also train investigators from other nations and agencies on investigating crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.
Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 2,500 items to more than 23 countries.