A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Precolumbian gold and turquoise jewelry once for sale at Sotheby's has been returned to Peru by U.S. Customs Service agents. According to Cultural Counselor Teresa Quesada, the Peruvian embassy in Washington learned of the items, believed to have been looted from the protected archaeological region of Sipán in northern Peru, through Sotheby's November 1994 auction catalog. Advised by Sipán excavator Walter Alva that the artifacts had come from the site, Peru requested that Sotheby's withdraw them from the sale. When Sotheby's declined to do so, says Quesada, Peru contacted U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno; Maria Papageorge Kouroupas, executive director of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the United States Information Agency; and U.S. Customs in New York, asking them to take the necessary steps to recover the items.
Under the Cultural Property Implementation Act, effective May 7, 1990, artifacts from the Sipán region of northern Peru are prohibited entry into the United States unless accompanied by an export permit issued by Peru. A seizure warrant for the objects was served at Sotheby's on December 14, 1994, at which time they were taken to the New York Customs House. Valued by Sotheby's at between $4,000 and $7,000 each, the objects are a Late Chavín (ca. 700-400 B.C.) hollow gold bead in the form of a head, a Late Chavín necklace of gold and turquoise beads with triangular gold pendants alternating with circular and triangular dangles, and an Early Mochica (ca. 300-100 B.C.) necklace composed of three strands of turquoise and gold beads with repoussé pendants bearing bird heads and wings. Experts consulted by U.S. Customs confirmed that the artifacts were pre-Inka and appeared to be from the extensive looting and illicit trafficking activities that have taken place at Sipán.
How the jewelry got into the United States continues to be investigated, according to Senior Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt of the U.S. Customs Service. She notes that such archaeological objects are typically smuggled into the United States without being declared or are accompanied by false documentation that does not identify the Peruvian government as the owner. In addition to their cultural importance, the artifacts are believed to be the first Sipán material ever seized and repatriated under the cultural property act, which implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
President Alberto Fujimori of Peru personally returned the jewelry after a visit to Washington May 21. It is now at the Brüning Museum in Lambayeque, where finds from the Sipán excavation are exhibited.