Does a New Mexico museum have looted and
smuggled artifacts in its collection?
It’s among the best collections of pre-Columbian art anywhere. In a gallery at the Palace of the Governors museum in Santa Fe, N.M., dimly lit and hushed but for a viewer’s occasional gasp, fourteen shelves hold grinning Mayan deities, gleaming Colombian gold body armor, and about 70 other pieces. Not a single one looks damaged, cracked or abraded. This collection dazzles.
In 1998, the FBI seized four pieces from the collection on suspicion they were looted and smuggled from Peru. The four were a gold monkey-head pendant about the size of a fist; a semi-circular golden belt ornament adorned with eight small bells; and twin ear ornaments made of gold, turquoise and shell. All exquisite pieces, and all similar to pieces excavated at Sipán, site of one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century and a place known for its well-organized bands of looters.
The story begins in 1987 when grave robbers broke into a 1,700-year-old tomb at a pyramid complex near the north Peruvian village of Sipán. Within days they were knocking on the doors of art dealers with some of the most fabulous pre-Columbian objects ever seen — gold and turquoise ornaments, plates of gold and silver body armor, exquisite figurines. The collectors were stunned. From London to Los Angeles, word swept through the international antiquities market that Peruvian looters had stumbled upon a major site.
Police soon busted the looting and fenced off the area to allow archaeologists, led by Peruvian field researcher Walter Alva, to begin careful excavation of the site. Since then, Alva has excavated about a dozen more tombs. Their careful excavation has yielded new insights into the rituals and artistic achievements of pre-Inca societies, knowledge that would have been lost forever if looters had ransacked the rest of the tombs.
Yet art dealers were still selling pillaged Sipán items — and encouraging looters to dig up more. Hoping to tighten enforcement of anti-smuggling laws and ultimately to discourage looting, then-President George Bush banned the unlicensed importation of items from the Sipán tombs in a 1990 emergency executive order.
The museum had some explaining to do. It was one thing to have private collectors holding looted Sipán items. Here was something much more serious. If archaeologists were correct, here was a public, taxpayer-supported museum exhibiting items whose import had been specifically barred not by some obscure U.S. Customs code, but by presidential order.
“We thought we had a criminal case here,” said Special Agent Brian Midkiff of the FBI’s Santa Fe office.
The museum denies the pieces are from Sipán. But the case shows the quandary in which America’s booming museums are increasingly finding themselves. Trustees and the public want bigger and better exhibits, while academics and foreign governments accuse museums of fomenting the looting of ancient sites by buying antiquities on the open market or receiving them as donations that get the donor a tax write-off. Around the world, from Guatemala to Turkey, grave robbers are destroying ancient sites before trained archaeologists even have a chance to look at them, much less excavate them. And museums stand accused of receiving some of that plunder. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Denver Art Museum have both handed back antiquities to source countries, not always willingly, while the government of Guatemala accuses the Boston Museum of Fine Arts of exhibiting blatantly pillaged Mayan artifacts. Slowly, the charges of receiving stolen goods are changing the museum business and potentially how the American public views ancient art.
One day in September 1998, FBI agent Midkiff received a call from his colleague Bob Wittman at the FBI office in Philadelphia. They had never previously spoken to each other but Wittman had an interesting case to discuss with Midkiff. An archaeologist who saw artifacts at the Museum of New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors noticed that a few were dead ringers for Sipán artifacts seized over the years by U.S. and Peruvian police. The Sipán style was both distinctive and well-known. A traveling show had drawn crowds to the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1994 and 1995 before returning home to a museum in Peru.
The archaeologist had alerted Wittman. Now Wittman was planning to come to Santa Fe to see the pieces for himself and investigate whether U.S. anti-smuggling laws were broken on the pieces’ long journey from Peru to the museum. Wittman wanted Midkiff to set up a meeting with the director of the museum, Thomas Chavez.
Wittman had become the FBI’s go-to man on art theft. His success in nailing corrupt dealers had won him a reputation throughout the agency. The previous year, posing as an art dealer, he had mounted an elaborate sting operation that netted a 2.6-pound piece of gold body armor known as a backflap that had been looted from Sipán and smuggled into the United States. Two men who wanted $1.6 million for the piece were arrested and convicted. The backflap was returned to Peru, where it was received by officials in a ceremony like a returning dignitary.
The FBI trumpeted the seizure as a major victory against art smuggling. The backflap was “now back in Peru, where it will hopefully rest safely for the next 2,000 years,” said an FBI statement in 1998.
“That case showed that if you deal in smuggled pieces, you’re going to get convicted,” said Wittman.
He knew more than almost anyone else at the FBI about cultural property law — that is, the complicated body of laws, customs codes and international treaties that regulate which kinds of art can be brought legally into the United States, and which cannot. In 1997 the Clinton administration signed an agreement with Peru known as the “Memorandum of Understanding Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from the Pre-Hispanic Cultures and Certain Ethnological Material from the Colonial Period.” The first of its kind between the United States and another country, the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, committed both countries to cooperate in restricting the import of Peruvian loot, enlisted their police forces to that end, and made it easy to repatriate confiscated goods.
By March 2002 nearly 300 confiscated artifacts had been returned to Peru thanks to the MOU, said the Bush administration upon renewing the 1997 Clinton agreement for a further five years.
And the most valuable of those pieces was the gold backflap that Wittman had seized in Philadelphia. As he drove from the airport in Albuquerque through sagebrush country up to Santa Fe, Wittman thought he might have a few more items to return to Peru soon.
Wittman and Midkiff met with the museum director Chavez in his office at the Palace of the Governors on September 29, 1998. Chavez told the agents that all four pieces were from the collection of John Bourne, an elderly, reclusive antiquarian who lived in Santa Fe. Bourne had already donated one of the four pieces in questions, the monkey head, to the museum and had lent the other three with the intention of later donating them.
Chavez offered to cooperate in repatriating the pieces if it they had been looted. He told the agents that the donor had implied to him, but not exactly said, that he had inherited the pieces from his father. If true, this meant the pieces had probably entered the country decades before and likely could not be touched. Nonetheless a perhaps skeptical Chavez had told Bourne that if the pieces had entered the country improperly, then the museum might have to send them back to Peru.
The agents walked down the stairs to the exhibit hall and saw the pieces. The gallery guide noted blandly that they were from “Northern Peru, AD 200-500.” Only a trained art historian could say but Wittman thought they resembled the Sipán style.
Then he and Midkiff drove to the home of John Bourne, collector.
Bourne seemed surprised to see the agents but invited them into his home on Santa Fe’s posh Tano Alto road. He told them he had bought all four pieces in 1987 from a man named Ben Johnson.
So much for inheriting them from his father.
Benjamin Bishop Johnson was a distinguished art historian and conservator who had worked at the Smithsonian and turned to art dealing late in his career. He had won a reputation as purveyor of top-quality ancient artifacts, “collecting, authenticating, and selling art to the richest and most influential clients in America,” as Sidney Kirkpatrick wrote in his early account of the Sipán affair, Lords of Sipán. In 1987, just weeks after looters in Peru had emptied the first Sipán tomb, Johnson received via an American antiquities smuggler named David Swetnam the first known consignment of Sipán treasures to reach the United States. Swetnam was convicted in 1989 and sentenced to six months at federal prison in Boron, California, after pleading guilty to smuggling. A group of American advocates of Peruvian cultural patrimony then filed a civil lawsuit against Johnson and six others, citing evidence obtained by U.S. Customs agents in raids on collectors’ homes. The suit’s aim was to have the pieces confiscated and repatriated to Peru. A judge threw out the suit, citing lack of evidence against Johnson, but his involvement with Swetnam tarnished Johnson’s career forever. He died in September 1990, and his collection of hundreds of pre-Hispanic artifacts was auctioned off at Sotheby’s.
Bourne said Johnson called him in 1987 and told him he had some pieces from a recently discovered Peruvian site. Bourne was intrigued. A few days later, two men unknown to Bourne showed up at his house with the four items. Bourne said he did not remember their names if he ever knew them, or was not prepared to tell the FBI. Bourne bought all four pieces in cash, no receipts. The FBI declined to say what the price was, but estimates of their total value have ranged from $60,000 to $150,000.
The next day, Wittman and Midkiff returned to the museum to remove the four pieces as evidence in a criminal probe. In seizing them, the FBI cited the National Stolen Property Act of 1983, the penalties for violation of which included ten years jail and a $250,000 fine for individuals. What Bourne now owned — and what he gave the museum — was not so much pre-Hispanic artifacts as a legal hot potato.
Wittman had seen cases before of collectors unloading legally dodgy pieces on museums.
“What else are you going to do with it? Sell it? If you donate, you get a tax deduction, and then it’s the museum’s problem,” said Wittman.
It looked like all four pieces might soon go the way of the Philadelphia backflap: on a plane back to Peru, without a penny of compensation for the unwary American buyer.
But then Bourne, his lawyer and the antiquities lobby struck back.
Before the pieces could be sent home, the FBI needed to establish they were indeed from Sipán. The agents also wanted to track down the identity of the two men who sold the pieces to Bourne. If they were dealing in smuggled goods in 1987, Midkiff thought they were likely still doing so.
Proving the pieces were from Sipán would not be simple. It is usually impossible to prove that an artifact has been looted from a particular grave. A looter cracks into a tomb, he grabs everything in sight, he sells it. No one else alive has ever seen the tomb, so how could anyone except the looter know where the loot came from? This reality has been the defense of professional pillagers and collectors for generations. Ransacking of standing monuments such as temples is easier to prove because there will be witnesses or photographs showing what stood there before. But pieces from underground sites comprise the vast majority of ancient artifacts in American museums and private collections today in part because it is so difficult to prove they were excavated illegally.
Sipán, however, was no ordinary case of pillage. Its contents were so distinctive and so unlike anything ever found that their origin could be proven by a kind of comparative art history. Did the pieces in Santa Fe match pieces that had been seized by Peruvian police or excavated later by archaeologists at the same site? If the pieces were similar enough, the FBI could persuade a judge that the pieces were from Sipán and therefore subject to repatriation. To make that assertion, they needed the expert testimony of the man who excavated Sipán: Walter Alva.
In 1987, before the world had heard of Sipán, Alva was a museum director and field archaeologist known in his native Peru for his crusades against looting, in which he would lecture schoolchildren, tour groups, journalists and anyone else who would listen about the destruction caused by grave robbers. All that changed with Sipán. His articles on the dig were published with lavish photo spreads in National Geographic. Alva had joined the select group of celebrity archaeologists.
Midkiff and Wittman invited Alva in his role as Sipán’s chief archaeologist to New Mexico to offer his expert opinion on the pieces’ origin. Also, Alva and Chavez had a lot in common. Both were provincial museum directors from academic backgrounds, running small but prestigious public institutions. There could be a gentlemen’s agreement to hand over the pieces, perhaps after a lengthy, face-saving loan to the New Mexico museum. Alva might give a talk on the Sipán excavation in Santa Fe. It could all be done, like much business in the museum world, with a handshake and a wink, clearing the decks to allow the FBI to pursue the leads given to them by Bourne.
Alva, still in Peru, discussed with Chavez on the phone their impending meeting. “I was confident we could reach an agreement for the return of the pieces quietly, like gentlemen, without harming the image of the museum,” Alva said three years later. “No one likes to be accused publicly of showing stolen property.”
Alva arrived in Santa Fe in late October 1998 and found the museum director had suddenly soured. According to Alva, Chavez at first refused to take Alva’s phone calls and when he finally did he told Alva he was too busy to meet him and bluntly told him he had no intention of returning the pieces. Bourne meanwhile had hired a New York lawyer, Carl Soller, known for his success in defending art dealers and collectors against charges of illegal importation of artifacts. Bourne was footing the legal bill to hold on to all four pieces. There would be no gentlemen’s agreement.
The stakes were growing higher for the museum. A story in the Santa Fe New Mexican quoted a source inside the Museum of New Mexico system as saying the seizure could affect the museum’s professional accreditation and ability to win grants. This brought a furious response from Ed Able, president of the Washington-based American Association of Museums, who called the comments “irresponsible and inaccurate” and noted that documenting the provenance of artifacts is time-consuming and expensive.
Midkiff, meanwhile, had checked the pieces out of the FBI evidence vault so Alva could inspect them. To no one’s surprise, Alva found that all four pieces were from Sipán, although he was more sure about the gold belt ornament and the monkey head than about the pair of gold-and-turquoise ear spools. The belt ornament, in particular, was identical in design to a piece seized by Peruvian police from grave-robbers in 1987 a few weeks after they raided the tomb. That piece was probably made by the same artist 1,700 years ago as the piece behind glass in Santa Fe.
Alva felt confident he had enough evidence to convince Chavez that the pieces were looted and that Chavez, in line with museum ethics, should agree to return the pieces.
Yet Chavez insisted he had seen no proof beyond Alva’s assertions that the pieces were looted. “The pieces are staying here,” Chavez told Alva.
It was now a bitterly personal standoff between two men, two museums, and two cultures.
“What that museum did was launder stolen property,” said Alva later. “It was clear Chavez was not going to help. He was on the side of the collector, not on the side of a country that was stripped of its patrimony. I was outraged and surprised that this could happen in the United States.”
“Alva wanted to do a reverse looting,” Chavez told me. “He wanted to come here, take these things home with him, and that would be that. I’m not going to let that happen without some proof.” He insisted he remained willing to send the pieces back to Peru if an “objective” person said they were from Sipán. “Give me a neutral person who can say these pieces are Sipán, and they’re gone. Alva was not that neutral person.”
The pieces were never returned to Peru. They remain in the Palace of the Governors, the only Sipán artifacts in the permanent collection of a public museum anywhere in the world outside Peru.
The FBI sent all its evidence including notes from its interview with Bourne to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Santa Fe. Bourne’s statement that he bought the pieces in 1987 was a key element in his defense. Since the pieces had entered the country before Bush’s emergency order of 1990 and the Clinton MOU of 1997, it would be difficult to build a criminal case.
It was on this basis that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Santa Fe declined to prosecute Bourne and ordered the FBI to return the pieces to the museum in January 2000.
The Peruvian government is considering a civil suit against Bourne and the Palace of the Governors. The burden of proof in a civil case is lighter than in a criminal case. Yet it will take money to hire an American legal team, money that Peru could use to prevent pillage on the ground, or to build schools, sewers or clinics in places where poverty drives young men to loot.
To Peruvians and to people in other countries with rich cultural heritages, what’s at stake is more than exhibits in a museum. It’s their aggrieved sense of loss at what they perceive as the plunder of their treasures to benefit the international art market.
John Bourne declined to be interviewed for this article. But he stated in a letter to me that the FBI’s actions were
based on an allegation by one individual. However impressive that individual’s credentials might be, the FBI did not deem it necessary to engage or even request advice from any other known expert in the pre-Columbian art and artifacts field to determine whether the allegations had any basis in fact before confiscating and holding them for nearly two years. It was certainly a classic case of FBI presumption of guilt with no factual background to support its premise.
Alva is now finishing work on the new Museum of the Royal Tombs of the Lord of Sipán, built with funds from proceeds of the Sipán shows in museums in the United States and a $1 million grant from the government of Switzerland. Due to open in July 2002, the museum will hold virtually all pieces from Sipán’s excavated tombs and those confiscated over the years in Peru and the United States, including the Philadelphia backflap.
The new museum won’t hold Sipán artifacts hoarded by private collectors, of course. But Alva has not lost faith in recovering the Santa Fe pieces.
“More has been looted in Peru in the past 20 years than in the previous 400, and this is an example of why,” said Alva. “But we have a space reserved for those pieces.”
©2003 Roger Atwood
Roger Atwood, a longtime correspondent for Reuters, examined the plundering of antiquities during his Alicia Patterson fellowship year.