On Wednesday, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials returned 412 pre-Columbian antiquities to Peru. US Officials said it was the largest repatriation since the 1970s. The objects were returned during a repatriation ceremony at Florida International University in Miami. This is the Consul General of Peru, Jorge E. Ramon Morey. The best reporting is from the Miami Herald, with a slideshow and video, here. The Washington Post has a store here, Reuters has a blurb here and the AP summary can be found here.
They were being hawked by Ugo Bagnato, an Italian citizen, from a 1985 GMC cutaway van. Each antiquity was being sold for as much as $2,000 a piece. He smuggled the objects into the country in 2004 using “fake documents.” If I had to guess, I’d say he faked the customs documents. I had heard nothing about this case previously, but it seems Bagnato plead guilty and served 17 months in federal prison. He is now awaiting deportation.
The objects included:
- gold jewelry
- burial shrouds
- clay vessels
- ancient fabrics
- a child’s tunic
The arrest is a welcome sign I think, but of course the archaeological context surrounding the objects has been destroyed. As Morey said, coastal areas in Peru are looted to such an extent that “from an airplane, it looks like the area has been bombed.” The objects were returned pursuant to the 1997 bilateral agreement between the two nations. This was the way the US chose to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
This arrest of Bagnato and the repatriation, though welcome, indicate that the current regulation of the international antiquities trade is simply not working. One would expect that a guy selling a 3,000 year-old pot from a van should be apprehended. The objects weren’t noticed by Customs officials, because most shipments cannot be satisfactorily examined. Also, the middle-men and actual looters are unlikely to be punished.
Will the high-profile announcement this week serve to discourage the illicit trade? I have my doubts. If such this guy can openly sell objects from his van, I wonder how many illicit objects are sold in the more prestigious auction houses and galleries? We cannot be sure of course, because they do not routinely give provenance for their wares, and until they do, Peru and other source nations will likely continue to lose their archaeological heritage.