Raiders of the Lost Art

Are American museums abetting Latin American grave robbers?

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Among collectors in the United States, pre-Columbian art is hot, and looters are sweeping the Andes in search of buried treasure to meet the demand. All this determined prospecting has brought a wealth of valuable artifacts into Western collections, both private and public, but at a price. As Roger Atwood reports in ArtNews (June 2000), Peru is experiencing the mass desecration of its ancestral burial grounds and losing its "cultural assets" at an alarming rate.

An array of "pre-Columbian" artifacts, including pottery and textiles, were left behind by the many cultures that rose and fell throughout the Americas prior to the European conquest. Rigoberto, a third-generation huaquero, or looter, spends his days looking for them. He drives bamboo poles into the mountain soil, waiting to hear the telltale thud of a brick or ceramic pot marking a tomb. "My grandfather used to find the weavings they wrapped the mummies in—good stuff," he told Atwood. "Five more years, and I don’t think there will be anything left."

Peru is doing what it can to stop the plunder, Atwood reports. Repentant looters have formed citizens’ patrols and spy networks to protect ancient grave sites. At Lima’s international airport, an archaeologist and art historian now work with customs officers 24 hours a day, seizing objects being smuggled out of the country. Peru has accepted the 1970 UNESCO treaty and ratified the 1995 UNIDROIT treaty aimed at regulating international trade in looted cultural goods, and it has asked the United States for help repatriating its ancestral inheritance.

Under legislation drawn up in accordance with the UNESCO convention, the United States considers repatriation requests on a case-by-case basis. Legally, however, there’s currently little to stop the flood of plundered Peruvian goods from being imported into the United States, especially when they end up on the shelves of private collectors. Many stolen goods eventually find their way to museums.

Bruce Batterson, who teaches museum law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, says that while museums are stepping up their efforts to assess the origins of pre-Columbian artifacts and many are refusing undocumented pieces, American collectors are experiencing a conflict in values. "We want to help other countries not be decimated," Batterson explains. "But we want to allow our citizens to collect art. We want our museums to expose our people to many cultures from around the world."

Boston University archaeologist Ricardo Elia takes a slightly tougher stance. "The public needs to demand accountability from museums—and demand that they state exactly where these objects are from and how they got there," he tells ArtNews. "Museums that acquire undocumented artifacts are not only beneficiaries of looting but are really acting as its agents."

No longer swashbuckling imperialists—Indiana Jones types who rob graves for Western museums—many archaeologists have become voices for conservation. Atwood explains how some hope to involve collectors in "sponsor-a-site programs"; pieces would be excavated carefully, and only enough items to support the research would be sold.

Other archaeologists think we ought to leave graves alone. In Peru, these researchers are racing looters to find undiscovered sites, then concealing instead of excavating them. Peter Lerche, a West German, has lived in Peru and studied the Chachapoya, a pre-Incan culture, for 20 years. In National Geographic (Sept. 2000), he describes his delight at finding the White House, an undisturbed chullpa, or funeral house, high on a cliff in the Peruvian cloud forest, overlooking the valley of the Huabayacu River. "This could be a rare find indeed," he writes. Grave robbing is not new to Peru, but it appears that neither the Incas nor the Spaniards nor today’s looters reused or plundered the open-air tomb.

Working with local officials and the National Institute of Culture, Lerche plans to install a fence to protect this high grave. And he hopes the site will become part of a proposed archaeological reserve. "In the end, if all goes well," he writes, "the White House will be left just the way its creators left it: alone on a cliff, open to eternity."