Solved: Case of the Disappearing Headdress, the Mona Lisa of Peru
Steve Connor Science Editor, The Independent (London, England)
One of South American's most valuable art treasures, missing for 20 years, has been recovered by Scotland Yard in an extraordinary operation involving murder and double dealing.
The artefact is an ancient Peruvian headdress considered a national treasure and worth more than pounds 1m.
The stunning gold mask disappeared in 1988, after a tomb in the Jequetepeque valley in northern Peru was excavated and its contents trafficked on the black market.
The 3ft-wide headdress was recovered largely thanks to the unorthodox methods of a maverick art specialist, who switched from selling fake masterpieces to recovering stolen ones.
The Peruvian treasure depicts the image of a sea god - the headdress symbolises a mythical octopus with a stylised human head displaying cat-like features.
It is an example of ancient Mochica-civilisation art dating back to 700AD - before the Incas - and is regarded as one of the most important artefacts in Peru's cultural heritage.
Like thousands of other Peruvian antiquities, the mask is thought to have been trafficked in the international black market for stolen art works.
It is believed to have ended up in the hands of a Peruvian dealer called Raul Apestiguia who was murdered in 1996 and his home was ransacked. The headdress next appeared on the black market for sale by a notorious Latin American dealer, with another 41 stolen artefacts.
It is at this stage that a controversial Dutchman called Michel van Rijn became involved. Mr Van Rijn, who is based in London, once specialised in stealing and smuggling works of art, but now claims to expose bent dealers.
He used his website to highlight the stolen headdress. Mr Van Rijn said yesterday that he was contacted by the dealer, who offered the headdress as a bribe in return for taking his details off the website. …