On July 12th, I attended a cultural repatriation ceremony at the Embassy of Peru in Washington, DC. The ceremony was conducted in order for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to formally return to the government of Peru 14 stolen and looted cultural paintings and artifact. The items were recovered in 5 separate investigations by special agents of ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Returned to the people of Peru were 9 beautiful 18th century religious paintings from the Cusco region of Peru, a Spanish colonial silver and gilt enamel monstrance from the 1700’s that was stolen from a church altar, and 4 archeological items that date back more than 2,000 years. The return of these items was the culmination of a year’s long investigative effort by ICE special agents, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Interpol, and the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center.
Participating in the repatriation ceremony were ICE Director John Morton, Peruvian Ambassador to the United States Harold Forsyth, and U.S. Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
“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. He then added, “Why do we care about cultural heritage crimes when we could be chasing drug smugglers, human traffickers and gang members? If we ignore these crimes, we debase our past.”
“This 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.
Because of the proactive and thorough investigative and undercover work by special agents, these items were able to be returned to their country of origin. Several were up for auction at a Christies, some were being sold at numerous galleries, and still others were offered for sale on EBay. HSI investigations revealed that all of these objects were taken out of Peru in violation of Peruvian law and brought into the U.S. in violation of U.S. Customs law and regulations. Specifically, the items had been removed in violation of a U.S.--Peru bi-lateral 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 documentation.
Federal importation laws give HSI the authority to take a leading role in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property and art. Customs laws allow HSI to seize cultural property and art brought into the United States illegally, especially when objects have been reported lost or stolen.
ICE agents bring valuable artworks into the Peruvian Embassy ICE agents inspect works that are intended for repatriation