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Brooklyn Museum seeks to return pre-Hispanic artifacts to Costa Rica

January 11, 2011 |  3:38 pm

Bowl costa rica brooklyn museum

More than a century ago, an American railroad and fruit magnate named Minor C. Keith unearthed thousands of pre-Hispanic artifacts on a plantation in Costa Rica, then took them to the United States. They were gold and jade pieces, ceramic bowls and anthropomorphic figurines. In 1934, five years after Keith died, the Brooklyn Museum in New York acquired about 5,000 pieces from his collection. Those objects then languished in storage for more than seven decades.

Now, the Brooklyn Museum wants to send the Keith objects back to Costa Rica, but the Central American nation has to come up with the money to pay to move them.

The potential exchange is not characterized by the political and philosophical debates that have pitted Western museums and universities against governments in countries from which archaeologically valuable items have been taken. For example, Peru and Yale University fought for years over artifacts dug up at the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu until a deal on those items was reached in November.

In this case, Costa Rica had made no claims on the Keith objects but responded positively to outreach made by the Brooklyn Museum, stemming from the museum's efforts to minimize and streamline its holdings.

The Brooklyn Museum has told the National Museum of Costa Rica that it would like to return about 4,500 pre-Hispanic artifacts but would like to keep some pieces that are considered more valuable. In Costa Rica, officials said they were open to receiving any artifacts but have no budget to pay for the shipping costs, estimated at $59,000.

Work is underway for a private campaign to raise funds for the objects' transfer, Francisco Corrales, an archaeologist at the Costa Rica museum, said in an interview with La Plaza. "There is nothing concrete yet but the fact that there is no money doesn't mean the state doesn't want to get these materials," Corrales said.

Most of the items have not been examined, catalogued or dated. Through a spokeswoman, Brooklyn Museum curator Nancy Rosoff said she had no details on who made the Costa Rican objects or when.

But museum officials in Costa Rica are certain the items do not belong to major pre-Hispanic culture such as the Inca or Maya, which thrived for centuries before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Instead, the Costa Rican objects have been dated to an "intermediate zone" between advanced Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations, Corrales said.

The pieces Keith took from Costa Rica could also be referred to in shorthand as "Chibcha," for the indigenous linguistic group used in the region, or "Isthmo-Colombian," referring to nearby indigenous cultures in Colombia that would have had contact with Costa Rica's small indigenous populations.

Currently, only about 1% of Costa Rica's population is indigenous.

The Brooklyn Museum has said most of the Keith items are not exhibition-quality, but Corrales told La Plaza that they are valuable nonetheless in that they could help shed light on the country's cultures before the Spanish arrived or fill holes in the country's archaeological record.

"What's clear is that there is enormous investigative worth in them," Corrales said, because excavations continue in the area where Keith and his company dug up artifacts, and items found more recently in Costa Rica "could be related to material in this collection."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A pre-Hispanic ceramic bowl from Costa Rica, in the Minor C. Keith collection. Credit: Brooklyn Museum

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