Ancient Art Traffickers Rob History for Millions ; Representatives from Several Latin American Countries Met Last Week Totackle the Growing Problem

Article excerpt

When the Rev. Jorge Chacn entered his chapel on the outskirts of Cuzco to say mass last week, he could scarcely believe his eyes. Just the night before he had left the adobe chapel alongside the San Sebastian Church in perfect order. But when he arrived the next morning, all that was left of a 17th-century, seven-painting series on the resurrection of Lazarus were a few fringes of canvas clinging to empty wooden frames.

Fr. Chacn couldn't say mass that day. "I just wasn't myself, and I was crying and very upset," he recalls. "This is a great loss. These paintings have great historical and cultural value for our people."

Ironically this robbery took place just a few days before a regional workshop, called "Fighting the Traffic of Objects of Cultural Heritage," was held in Cuzco last week. The event brought together representatives of government and private cultural institutes from all over Latin America as well as representatives from art and antiquities units of Interpol, the FBI, and Scotland Yard. The meeting explored ways to stem this growing contraband trade.

The trafficking of cultural artifacts from Latin America - principally pre-Columbian pieces and colonial-era art - brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Across the continent, common criminals and poverty-stricken campesinos rob churches and loot the tombs of ancestors. Traffickers smuggle the goods out of the country and into Europe and the US, where they are often sold for small fortunes to private collectors and even museums.

This type of traffic has taken its toll on other nations too. In countries like Bangladesh and Mali, examples of traditional local folk art are difficult, if not impossible, to find. This is what officials in Latin America want to avoid.

"We will suffer a terrible loss of our cultural heritage, and we will lose our self-esteem and our appreciation for what is ours, if we don't start concerning ourselves with defending our identity and our past," says Lucia Astudillo, Ecuador's representative to the International Council of Museums.

Combatting trafficking

This trade has been difficult for countries in the region to battle. One of the biggest obstacles is loophole-ridden and lax laws. "Our penal code doesn't contemplate sanctions for traffickers. There are small monetary fines, but there are no provisions for jail time like they have in France," says Maria Isabel Gomez of Colombia's Culture Ministry. …