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Bronze Manikkavichavakar heading home

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Manikkavichavakar, photo courtesy of ICE


  Long story made short: In India in the 800s, Manikkavichavakar was sent to buy 10,000 Arabian horses for the king of Pandya on the subcontinent’s southern tip. On the way, he ran into a devotee of Shiva, became enlightened and used the horse-trading money to build a temple. He wrote some hymns, got famous, became a saint, and had a bunch of statues made in his honor.

More recently, a Manikkavichavakar statue got swiped from India and wound up in the U.S. and was recovered by the feds on Wednesday.

Below is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement account:

ICE partners with art collector to recover stolen idol from India

NEW YORK – An anonymous collector of Asian antiquities voluntarily surrendered a stolen 11-12th century Chola bronze statue representing Saint Manikkavichavakar. Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations’ cultural property unit determined the object had been looted from the Sivan Temple in Sripuranthan Village in Ariyalur District, Tamil Nadu in India.  The recovery of this religious relic Wednesday follows an ongoing international smuggling probe by HSI.

HSI special agents believe the collector is a victim in this situation because when the artifact was purchased in 2006, a false provenance was provided with the piece that had been manufactured to pre-date the idol’s theft.

HSI special agents have tracked multiple false provenances provided by Subhash Kapoor, the owner of Art of the Past Gallery, who has been implicated in the HSI probe dubbed Operation Hidden Idol. This methodology of back-tracking an artifact to its theft site and searching out the smuggling methods from the source country to Kapoor’s U.S. gallery has led to numerous recoveries. To date, HSI special agents, in conjunction with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, have netted in excess of 2,500 artifacts worth over $100 million. These artifacts have been sourced from countries all around the world.

On Wednesday afternoon, HSI formally took custody of the stolen idol of Saint Manikkavichavakar linked to the ongoing investigation. Although the relic is a religious idol and priceless to its worshippers, it could sell for as much as $1 million if legitimately offered on the market today. In addition to recovering this idol from the Tamil Nadu temples, HSI also has recovered at least six other sacred Chola bronzes that it anticipates forfeiting and repatriating to the Government of India.

HSI’s Operation Hidden Idol focuses on the activities of a former New York-based art dealer, Kapoor, who is currently in custody in India awaiting trial for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars’ worth of rare antiquities from several nations. The trails of looted artifacts have been traced all around the world. Within the past three months, two domestic museums, the Honolulu Museum and Peabody Essex, partnered with HSI to surrender illicit cultural property stemming from Kapoor. Over the last three years, HSI special agents have executed a series of search warrants targeting Kapoor’s Manhattan gallery, along with warehouses and storage facilities linked to the dealer. Additionally, three individuals have been arrested in the United States for their role in the scheme. The estimated value of the artifacts seized so far in the case exceeds $100 million.

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Museum surrenders pieces in Hidden Idol investigation

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One of seven items found in a Honolulu museum believed to have been looted from India. Photo courtesy of ICE.

One of seven items found in a Honolulu museum believed to have been looted from India. Photo courtesy of ICE.

HONOLULU — The Honolulu Museum of Art has handed over seven artifacts likely looted from India to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on Wednesday.
ICE officials said the museum didn’t know about the objects’ background when they were acquired between 1991 and 2003.
“Many of the items can be traced to one of India’s richest archeological regions, Chandraketugarh,” ICE officials said in a release on the matter earlier this week.
Authorities allege some of the items are tied to the Operation Hidden Idol investigation former New York-based art dealer, Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor is currently in custody in India awaiting trial for allegedly looting millions of dollars’ worth of rare antiquities, ICE officials said.
Pieces returned by the Honolulu museum include a 2,000-year-old terra cotta rattle.
“In addition to the rattle resembling the Buddhist god of wealth, the objects include figurines, architectural fragments and tiles, which were removed from religious temples and ancient Buddhist sites,” officials said.
In 2013, Homeland Security Investigation agents in New York linked the museum’s terra cotta rattle to the Hidden Idol case, the museum began working with authorities and identified the other six objects, officials said.
The artifacts will be used in the prosecution for the Hidden Idol case, which has already lead to the seizure of more than $100 million worth of allegedly looted objects and three arrest. The items will then likely be returned to India.

Cannon and other loot returned to Italy

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Cannon and other loot returned to Italy. Photo courtesy of ICE.

Cannon and other loot returned to Italy. Photo courtesy of ICE.

Earlier this week, a sarcophagus lid, ancient artillary and other stolen artifacts were returned to Italy after turning up in the United States.
Here’s the latest from ICE:

NEW YORK — U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement offices returned 19 cultural treasures to the Italian government this week. The artifacts, including a 17th century cannon, 5th century Greek pottery and items dating to 300-460 B.C., were looted from their Italian owners and smuggled into the United States during the last several years.

HSI offices in New York, Boston, Buffalo, Baltimore, Miami, San Diego and San Francisco, with assistance provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Italy’s Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale Rome Office (TPC), seized the artifacts during 11 separate investigations. Homeland Security Investigations New York returned six objects Wednesday including “sleeping beauty,” an ancient Roman marble sarcophagus lid of Sleeping Ariadne, which was smuggled out of Italy.

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Peru loot rundown

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Customs officials recently returned paintings, statues, pottery and other artifacts that had been looted from Peru and turned up in the United States on eBay, at auction houses and in homes and businesses over the years.

Here’s the ICE rundown on the cases:

25 Peruvian cultural treasures returned to the government of Peru
Oct. 22, 2104
WASHINGTON — Four separate investigations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations led to the seizure of several looted Peruvian artifacts smuggled into the United States during the last several years. The artifacts were returned Wednesday to the Peruvian Consuls during simultaneous repatriation ceremonies in San Antonio, Denver and Boston.

Items returned included two Colonial-era Cusco paintings, a funerary vessel from100-1532 A.D., a Chancay statue from 1200-1450 A.D., a Lambayeque-style vessel from 800-1300 A.D., and Incan artifacts looted from ancient Peruvian graves.

Two paintings of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Anthony Abbot were returned Oct. 22 by HSI San Antonio. They were stolen from the Maria Magdalena Church in Taray, Peru, in October 2001. The paintings were ripped from the upper-left and upper-right niches of the principal altar of the church. Both were retouched and re-framed for sale and auction in the United States.

In 2009, HSI Austin received information regarding four antique religious oil paintings stolen from churches in Peru that were sold at an Austin auction house. HSI special agents initiated an investigation and determined the paintings were listed in Interpol’s stolen works of art database. The paintings were seized from the individuals who purchased the paintings. Two of the paintings were repatriated to the Republic of Peru in 2012.

HSI Salt Lake City initiated its investigation after receiving information from HSI Tel Aviv that a U.S. citizen had been arrested by the Israeli antiquities authorities for attempting to smuggle antiquities out of Israel. Special agents interviewed the individual at his home in Utah which resulted in the seizure of objects purchased in Peru and Costa Rica and smuggled into the country. Part of the collection included pre-Columbian pottery from Peru. One item was a Chancay statue from 1200-1450 A.D., and the other was a funerary vessel from100-1532 A.D.

HSI Knoxville investigated a business in Tennessee that sold Mayan artifacts. The business claimed the objects were from the Lambayeque region of Peru and were from an old collection, but the dates of importation and the origins were unknown. During an undercover investigation, HSI special agents purchased a vessel which was purported to be pre-Columbian. Experts from Tulane University examined the object and determined it was a black “Strap and Spout” vessel likely made in the Lambayeque style, circa 800-1300 A.D.

HSI Boston/Manchester special agents received information that an individual was attempting to sell looted Peruvian artifacts on eBay. The investigation determined the individual had a business partner in Peru who purchased artifacts from local farmers who looted graves. The artifacts were mailed from Bolivia to avoid Peruvian customs officials.

Special agents found the suspect to be in possession of numerous pre-Columbian cultural heritage artifacts which were determined to belong to Peru. They seized 37 items. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture verified that 20 of the items seized were in fact genuine and cultural property of Peru.

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Three looted statues returned to Cambodia

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Last month, we wrote posted a piece about the looted Duryodhana statue that was spotted at auction. This week the sculpture and two of its buddies arrived back in Cambodia.

Here are the details from ICE:

3 looted, ancient statues repatriated to Cambodia
June 4, 2014

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Three ancient sandstone sculptures were repatriated Tuesday to the Royal Government of Cambodia at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh.

The repatriation of the 10th-century Duryodhana, Bhima and Balarama statues followed an investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

The three pre-Angkorian sandstones statues were believed to be looted from Prasat Chen at the Koh Ker temple complex during the Khmer Rouge era and trafficked on the international art market. When the Duryodhana was offered for sale by an auction house in 2010, the Royal Government of Cambodia requested assistance from the U.S. government in recovering the statue.

Joint efforts by the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, the U.S. Department of State, HSI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York led to the voluntary return of the statues to Cambodia. The auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, returned the Duryodhana and the Balarama, respectively. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, returned the Bhima. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned two more statues in June 2013 to Cambodia. All the statues will be on display to the public in the National Museum of Cambodia, reunited with their pedestals.

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Statue returned to Cambodia

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The Duryodhana, a 10th century sandstone sculpture that was looted in the 1970s, has been returned to Cambodia. Photo courtesy ICE.

After being pried from a temple, beheaded and offered for auction, a statue has been returned to Cambodia. Below is a rundown on the case from customs enforcement:

Cambodian officials recognize HSI for return of ancient sandstone sculpture
May 7, 2014

NEW YORK — At a May 7 ceremony in New York, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York were commemorated by the Kingdom of Cambodia Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Sok An for the return of the Duryodhana, a 10th century sandstone sculpture.

The return of the Duryodhana follows the settlement of a civil forfeiture action filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which alleged that the Duryodhana was stolen from the Prasat Chen temple at Koh Ker in 1972 by an organized looting network, and ultimately imported into the United States and offered for sale by Sotheby’s Inc.

The settlement required Sotheby’s and the customer selling the Duryodhana, Decia Ruspoli de Poggia Suasa, to return the sculpture to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

According to an amended complaint filed in Manhattan federal court April 2013, and other documents filed in the case, from 928 to 944 A.D., Koh Ker was the capital of the ancient Khmer empire in Cambodia. The Khmer regime under Jayavarman IV constructed a vast complex of sacred monuments at Koh Ker, including the Prasat Chen temple and its statuary. These monuments have never been transferred to any private owner, and remain the property of the Cambodian state.

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Looted stone seals returned to Iraq

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Photo courtesy FBI

In a private ceremony at the Embassy of Iraq in Washington, D.C., the FBI repatriated four cylinder seals to the Iraqi government in October.

The stone seals are believed to date to as early as 2300 B.C. In ancient times, when rolled across wax or soft clay that later hardened, the seals formed an imprint or “signature” that marked a piece of property and uniquely identified its owner.

This is not the first time the FBI has played a role in the repatriation of Iraqi antiquities. In 2005, the Bureau returned eight stone seals that were believed to have been stolen. In 2011, terracotta plaques and other artifacts seized during a 2006 investigation were returned to the government of Iraq. It was the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003, where many of these items once resided, that led to the formation of the FBI’s Art Crime Team in 2004.

The seals returned on Oct. 25 are small enough to fit in a person’s palm. The Bureau’s International Operations Division and Criminal Investigative Division delivered the seals to Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily.

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Photo courtesy FBI

Roman pitcher and gold returned to Afghanistan

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Detail of a Roman wine pitcher returned to Afghanistan (and not Rome) a long with gold items. Photo courtesy Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The people of Afghanistan are getting ancient gold ornaments and an old Roman wine pitcher that had apparently been looted from the country and discovered in the United States as part of an investigation into antiquities trafficking.

Earlier this month, the items were officially returned to Afghan authorities during a ceremony at their embassy in Washington, D.C.

According to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, border protection officers discovered the artifacts in a shipment at Newark Liberty International Airport in March 2011. The investigation revealed the items were headed for a New York man to be passed on to another New Yorker suspected of “dealing in looted cultural property,” ICE officials said.

Authorities described the artifacts as follows:

The vase is a 12.75-inch Roman oinochoe, or wine pitcher, from the 5th to 8th century A.D. Also returned were three 4-by-3.25-inch 5th century B.C. gold foil appliques depicting antelopes and two antique coiled gold ornaments from approximately the 17th century, weighing approximately one pound.

This marks the four repatriation of looted property to Afghanistan.

Earlier returns include:

— A late 19th century historic “jezail” rifle ammunition speed loader returned June 2013. The ammunition speed loader had disappeared from the Kabul National Museum in the years after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan.

— Eight Bronze Age circa 2,000 B.C. artifacts returned in May 2008. The artifacts, likely looted from northern tombs, had been illegally removed from Afghanistan and sold in the United States.

— Two rare coins returned in May 2005. They were estimated to be more than 2,000 years old and were looted during the unrest following the departure of Russian forces in 1988. The Indo-Greek coins of Agathokles, dated between 171 and 160 B.C., were looted from Kabul Taliban factions.

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Disembodied hand holding foil appliques depicting antelopes that were returned to Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Jezail gun accessory returned

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A speed loader for an ancient jezail rifle that had disappeared from the Kabul National Museum was returned to the Afghan government June 2. Photo courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Federal agents have helped the government of Afghanistan recover some military equipment that has been missing since the Soviets pulled out.

The gear consisted of a speed loader for a jezail, which was state of the art weaponry for the 1800s. Jezails are heavy flintlock or matchlock muzzleloading muskets in calibers ranging from .50 to .75, and the loader had been part of the collection of the Kabul National Museum, but it disappeared following the Russian withdrawal.

As one can imagine, frequent fighting in Afghanistan has wreaked havoc on the country’s museums, and cultural artifacts have been leaking out since the 1980s thanks to looters, smugglers and black market merchants.

In February 2013, Homeland Security Investigations Kabul office began helping the Internaional Security Assistance Force to recover the historical jezail accessory, although the HSI release was sketchy on the details. On June 2, it was handed over to the Afghan government during a ceremony in the country’s Ministry of Information and Culture’s rose garden.

New push to solve 1990 art heist

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After more than 20 years, the FBI is launching a new initiative in an attempt to close the 1990 art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Two men disguised as police officers entered the museum, tied up the security guards and swiped more than $500 million in art. Officials said they believe the loot — 13 pieces including works from the old masters — was taken to Connecticut and Philadelphia as part of an attempted sale. Below is the FBI release with details on what to look for and how to collect the $5 million reward.

FBI Provides New Information Regarding the 1990 Isabella Steward Gardner Museum Art Heist
March 18, 2013

The FBI, along with Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, released new information about one of the largest property crimes in U.S. history—the art theft from the museum more than two decades ago. The FBI is appealing to the public for help in what is one of the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes.

The publicity campaign includes a dedicated FBI webpage on the Gardner Museum theft, video postings on FBI social media sites, publicity on digital billboards in Philadelphia region, and a podcast. To view and listen to these items, visit the FBI’s new webpage about the theft: http://www.FBI.gov/gardner.

The FBI believes it has determined where the stolen art was transported in the years after the theft and that it knows the identity of the thieves, Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, revealed for the first time in the 23-year investigation.

“The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft.” DesLauriers added, “With that same confidence, we have identified the thieves, who are members of a criminal organization with a base in the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.” After the attempted sale, which took place approximately a decade ago, the FBI’s knowledge of the art’s whereabouts is limited.

Information is being sought from those who possess or know the whereabouts of the 13 stolen works of art—including rare paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer—by publicizing new details about the case and continuing to highlight the $5 million reward for the return of the art. Although the FBI does not know where the art is currently located, the FBI is continuing its search, both in and beyond the Connecticut and Philadelphia areas. “With this announcement, we want to widen the ‘aperture of awareness’ of this crime to the reach the American public and others around the world,” said DesLauriers.

Anthony Amore, the museum’s chief of security, noted that the reward is for “information that leads directly to the recovery of all of our items in good condition.” He further explained, “You don’t have to hand us the paintings to be eligible for the reward. We hope that through this media campaign, people will see how earnest we are in our attempts to pay this reward and make our institution whole. We simply want to recover our paintings and move forward. Today marks 23 years since the robbery. It’s time for these paintings to come home.”

“The investigation into the Gardner Museum theft has been an active and aggressive effort, with law enforcement following leads and tracking down potential sources of information around the globe. Over the past three years, I have visited the museum several times, and each time I entered the Dutch Room and saw the empty frames, I was reminded of the enormous impact of this theft. I do remain optimistic that one day soon the paintings will be returned to their rightful place in the Fenway, as Mrs. Gardner intended,” said U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “As we have said in the past, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will consider the possibility of immunity from criminal prosecution for information that leads to the return of the paintings based on the set of facts and circumstances brought to our attention. Our primary goal is, and always has been, to have the paintings returned.”

The FBI stressed that anyone with information about the artwork may contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324) or the museum directly or through a third party, said Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly, who is the lead investigator in the case and a member of the Art Crime Team. “In the past, people who realize they are in possession of stolen art have returned the art in a variety of ways, including through third parties, attorneys, and anonymously leaving items in churches or at police stations.” Tips may also be submitted online at https://tips.fbi.gov.

Looted Rubens copy back in Germany

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(Note: Originally posted 7.24.12)

Bring me the head of John the Baptist. Or at least return the looted painting of it.
Usually when we hear about looted art from World War II, we think about Nazis swiping property from families displaced by the government’s brutal policies or German soldiers pillaging national museums after rolling tanks into town.

But earlier this month, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations put the finishing touches on an investigation that returned a painting that had been owned by Frederick the Great of Prussia and stolen by a Soviet general at the close of World War II.

Frederick was not longer around, and neither was Prussia, for that matter, so they gave it to Germany.
The recently repatriated painting is described as a contemporaneous copy of a Peter Paul Rubens piece that showed the beheading of John the Baptist. The Rubens original is believed to be forever gone, and the valuable copy in question hung the Frederick’s gallery at Sanssouci palace in Potsdam.

In 1943, the painting was removed from Fred’s Sanssouci museum and taken to the Palace of Rheinsburg, where it was stolen two years later.

Then in fall of 2010 when someone apparently tried to sell it through a Los Angeles auction house.
According to customs officials, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations Los Angeles heard about the sale, and a quick search of a database showed the German government had reported that the painting missing.

The investigation that followed traced the painting back to a Los Angeles-based family, who claimed the work wasn’t the missing Ruben and that there were other copies across the world.

Customs agents pressed on, and during the probe, Dr. Samuel Wittwer, of the Potsdam Sanssouci Museum in Germany, traveled with a HSI special agent to the auction gallery and determined that the painting was, in fact, the one stolen from the German museum, according to customs officials.

According to officials, when agents went back to the family to discuss their findings. family members told the special agents that the painting was taken by a Russian general during World War II, according to the HSI account. The general then gave the painting to the daughter of a Soviet official, who later sold the painting to the family. The family brought the painting to the United States when they moved here in the late 1970s.

“As supporters of the arts, the family was happy to return the painting to its rightful owners,” the HSI release on the matter states.

Earlier this month, HSI Frankfurt Attaché Michael Shea and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Philip D. Murphy took part in a repatriation ceremony with the director of the Potsdam Sanssouci Museum.

Moche artifacts headed back to Peru

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(Note: Originally posted 7.15.12)


This bronze tumi knife was used in Pre-Inca sacrificial ceremonies in what is now Peru before it was swiped and brought to the U.S. Last week, the tumi and other loot, some of which was listed on eBay, was returned to Peruvian authorities. Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


A few months ago, we wrote about a gold bell shaped like a monkey head that was on its way back to Peru after being looted. Last week, U.S. customs officials announced the monkey head, which was made by the Moche culture some 1,500 years ago, now has some company.

Another looted hoard being repatriated to Peru includes a bronze tumi sacrificial knife, a woven belt, a Moche whistling bowl as well as other pottery and some more recent (1700s ) paintings. A Thursday ceremony at the Peruvian embassy in Washington, D.C., marked the occasion.

“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,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said in a prepared statement.

The looted artifacts were recovered in the course of five separate investigations by special agents of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in New York; W.V.; Wilmington, Del.; and Austin and Houston, Texas, officials said.

Federal agents determined the items were removed from Peru and brought to the United States in violation of laws in both countries, including statues that restrict the importation of pre-Columbian artifacts and colonial-era religious objects into the United States without proper export documents.
Where did the feds find the stuff? Authorities said some was listed by prestigious auction houses. And some, it appears, was for sale on eBay.

According to the an ICE statement on the case, “two of the Cusco (Cusco is a region in Peru) oil paintings – Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and Virgin and Child – were sold at an auction house in Austin. Seven other Peruvian antique paintings were being sold from a Houston gallery. The pre-Columbian Chimu-Inca whistling pot and Andean textile were being sold on eBay. In an undercover Internet operation, HSI special agents in West Virginia targeted sellers of illicit pre-Columbian artifacts operating from this Internet site. The monstrance was listed for sale at Christie’s auction house in New York and HSI special agents discovered it was consigned by an art collector associated with museums in Puerto Rico and Denver.”

The monstrance — a Eucharist receptacle — was stolen from St. Stephen the Martyr, a small Catholic church in Yaurisque, located in the Cusco region. The Moche ceramic jar and the tumi knife were consigned by an estate trust in order to be sold at an auction house in Madison, N.J.
The collection of items returned includes:

Nine 18th century religious paintings from the Cusco region;
A pre-Columbian Chimu-Inca double-chambered blackware vessel that whistles when it contains liquid;
An ancient Andean textile that may have been used as a woman’s belt;
A Spanish colonial silver gilt and enamel monstrance from the 1700s. This type of receptacle was and is still used in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches;
A ceramic jar from the Moche culture that portrays farmers and fishermen who lived on the river valleys and the arid coastal plain of northern Peru during 100 to 800 A.D.; and
A Peruvian bronze ceremonial blade, or tumi, used by the Inca and pre-Inca cultures in the Peruvian coastal region as a sacrificial ceremonial knife.
(7.15.12)