MEXICO CITY -- U.S. officials Thursday returned more than 4,000 pieces of stolen and looted pre-Columbian art and artifacts to the Mexican government, the result of 11 investigations.
The recovery of the items, which include statues, hatchets and pottery, came about in different ways, according to information from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
In a Montana case, Homeland Security special agents kept tabs on an art dealer who had paid members of the Tarahumara, a tribe in northwestern Mexico, to rob items from ancestral burial caves in Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon area. The idea was to consign the items in a local gallery.
In a 2009 undercover case, agents discovered a Fort Stockton, Texas, resident in possession of 200 artifacts that had gone missing a year earlier from a museum in the Mexican border state of Coahuila.
A couple of copper hatchets were discovered at San Diego International Airport, having arrived from Sweden. At the Chicago Port of Entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers happened upon a Nayarit figurine.
These far-flung discoveries will come as no surprise to Mexican officials and others who follow the widespread illicit trade in Mexican cultural artifacts.
Noah Charney, the founding director of the nonprofit Assn. for Research Into Crimes Against Art, or ARCA, noted last year that Mexico had reported more than 2 million art objects stolen between 1997 and 2010, according to figures from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology.
Charney wrote that the yearly average of stolen items in Mexico surpasses the yearly average in Italy -- the country with the most stolen art reported each year in Europe -- by a factor of five.
The comparison, he added, is probably somewhat flawed, since the Italian pieces tend to be more substantial works and Mexican antiquities “may include fragments or very low-value” items. But the problem is serious enough that the Mexican ambassador to France last year asked for UNESCO to consider strengthening its 1970 Convention on Protection of Cultural Property, which set international standards to help prevent the plunder of precious cultural items.
The return of the Mexican items occurred during a “repatriation ceremony” at the Mexican Consulate in the border city of El Paso.
Tensions over border issues have been running particularly high of late after a number of shootings of Mexicans by U.S. Border Patrol agents. In statements Thursday, officials emphasized the healthy partnership between the two countries, at least when it comes to hunting down and returning stolen art.
Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Director Janice Ayala touted the “teamwork and cooperation” between the countries, while Mexican Consul General Jacob Prado thanked U.S. officials for returning items “which are a part of the cultural heritage and the historical memory of the people of Mexico.”
-- Richard Fausset