The high-stakes race to stop the trafficking of priceless artefacts
Written by Wired, published Thursday 17 May 2018 at
In December 2016, David Hidalgo received a photograph of a 17th-century Peruvian painting. The unsigned artwork, of the Virgen de Guadalupe, depicts the Virgin Mary surrounded by apparitions and tells the story of her appearance to Saint Juan Diego near Mexico City in 1531. Hidalgo’s tip-off came via email from a source who had seen the painting on show at the Bowers Museum in California, where it was on loan. Hidalgo’s source suspected that the painting had been stolen.
Hidalgo is serious and softly spoken; a lover of books and a stickler for detail. An investigative journalist, he co-founded OjoPúblico, a Lima-based digital media organisation, with fellow journalist Fabiola Torres in 2014.
OjoPúblico’s newsroom is in a tower block overlooking Lima. It’s June, winter in the southern hemisphere, and the sky is white and formless. Hidalgo has his back to the window. The city is edged with crumbling cliffs that have been gnawed by the Pacific Ocean and the skyline is dominated by high rises. In the distance, pueblos jóvenes – shanty towns – creep up the desert hills. The streets are jammed with taxis, hand-painted combis and shiny blue buses. Road signs say “Saca la mano del claxon” (“take your hand off the horn”), but most people ignore them.
“In the past six years, there have been sold in auction houses at least 7,000 pieces of Peruvian cultural patrimony,” he says. “So it’s a real traffic. It shows you the scale of this.”
In October 2016, Hidalgo and his team, frustrated by the continuing trafficking of his country’s cultural patrimony, launched Memoria Robada (Stolen Memory), the first big-data investigation into the trafficking of artefacts from Latin America.
Hidalgo won’t reveal the identity of the source that alerted him to the possible theft of the Virgen de Guadalupe. To stick your nose into the trafficking of art and artefacts is to interfere with a deadly business. On January 26, 1996, Raúl Apesteguía, a Peruvian art collector and dealer, was brutally murdered in his Lima apartment. When his bruised and bloodied body was discovered, several boxes of pre-Columbian gold and ceramics were missing.
“Some pieces which were probably stolen that night, or soon after that night, are still on the market,” says Hidalgo. “Peruvian experts have found some pieces that were about to be sold in auction houses in Europe as recently as 2016.”
No one has been charged with the murder or the robbery. Thieves and traffickers of cultural heritage are seldom prosecuted, explains Hidalgo. “In Latin America, it’s easier to catch a drug trafficker than an art trafficker.”
Peru’s cultural heritage is an easy target for thieves because there is so much of it. Many archaeological sites remain unexcavated or unsecured, making them hard to protect and ripe for looting. In the parched coastal desert, lumps in the sand hint at man-made structures below; in the fecund highlands, bottle-green hummingbirds sup from plants that camouflage pre-Columbian dwellings. And who knows what treasures lie tangled up in the spidery vines of the country’s Amazon rainforest?
In Lima, past and present stand cheek by jowl. Amid the ceviche and fried-chicken joints are colonial churches; street vendors sell acid-yellow Inca Kola next to Huaca Pucllana, a grand adobe pyramid dating from before 700CE. Peru’s towns and cities are easy pickings for the looters, who are tempted by valuable artefacts held in churches, museums and libraries.
Pre-Columbian civilisations, those which predate Columbus’s arrival on the continent, such as the Chachapoya, Chimú and Inca, constructed remarkable citadels such as Kuélap, Chan Chan and Machu Picchu. The objects they left behind – squat ceramics depicting mythical animals, silver figurines, gold ceremonial headdresses, mummified shamans and countless more – are Peru’s legacy. Starting around the 16th century, when the Viceroyalty of Peru extended throughout most of South America, rare books, exquisite manuscripts, maps and religious artworks were created; hybrids of Spanish realism and decorative, indigenous styles. Such precious artefacts have been coveted and collected in Europe and North America for centuries.
Precisely defining cultural theft can be a frustrating business. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture, which identifies artefacts of cultural significance, does maintain reportes de robos (theft reports). Other bodies, such as the police and the church, also keep records. Yet official paperwork can be disorganised, inaccurate and out-of-date, and, according to Hidalgo, is contradictory and spread across different offices and organisations.
Even if an object has been registered as stolen, the current owners can claim that they bought it in good faith. This paradox, whereby an object can be both stolen and sold with certification (which could, while authentic, be inaccurate) allows questionable trading of historical artefacts to continue around the world.
Through its investigations, OjoPúblico set out to expose some of the mechanisms behind the smuggling. In doing so, it has reported on traffickers and corrupt dealers and exposed loopholes in international laws that facilitate the sale of stolen artefacts. The team’s work is based on an analysis of thousands of court and police records, government reports, theft alerts, auction-house catalogues and on- and off-the-record interviews.
The team scanned and transcribed the documents and carried out huge online data scrapes. Over six months, they collected information from sources including the Peruvian Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs, museums, Interpol, police and customs and auction houses. They used Freedom of Information requests and publicly available data.
The backbone of Memoria Robada is a vast online database of Latin America’s cultural patrimony. It contains more than 268,000 objects, 42,300 of which have been reported as stolen. It also contains more than 7,800 records of auctioned artefacts that OjoPúblico believes were illegally taken from the region. It’s free and publicly accessible to allow the cross-checking of pieces offered for sale.
“We put all the information, detail by detail, in a big database that had two million facts,” says Hidalgo. “Two million details on, for example, the origin, the category, the age, the author [of books] in some cases.” Teams in Guatemala, Mexico, Argentina and Costa Rica gathered their own data. Each artefact has a photograph and an index card detailing its name and origin, as well as a description and note of whether it has been stolen, auctioned or repatriated. There are also downloadable PDFs of documents, such as theft reports and police records. To date, around 30 per cent of the documents have been uploaded. The process is ongoing.
It does not matter whether artefacts remain in situ or have been removed to public or private collections; they are equally at risk of trafficking by criminal groups. The Memoria Robada team has identified theft from museums and libraries, by public officers, looters and archaeologists, Hidalgo says. “That’s why a project like this is uncomfortable for so many people.”
Theft can happen anywhere: during its investigations, OjoPúblico found that a painting on loan from The Lima Art Museum to La Presidencia del Consejo de Ministros (the Presidency of the Council of Ministers) was never returned.
“We have the documents that prove it,” Hidalgo says. “So if it could happen at this level, you can imagine what can happen in museums in the Andes that have very important patrimony but no custody, no security and no budget for hiring guards.”
According to Hidalgo’s source, the Virgen De Guadalupe belonged to the Santiago Apostol Church in Cusco, a city in the Andes’ Huatanay valley.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Cusco had an imperial air; Inca and Spanish nobility commissioned thousands of paintings, resulting in a period of extraordinary artistic productivity. Some artists followed the Spanish taste for anatomical perfection and perspective, which the conquistadors introduced in the mid-1500s, while others preferred the indigenous aesthetic, which is flatter and more decorative. Many combined both styles. Scholars call this the Cusco School.
Until 2015, the Archdiocese of Cusco maintained an online database of stolen artworks. But, according to Hidalgo, it was taken down when a group of lawyers tried to sue the church, which they claimed was involved in trafficking. However, back when the database was still accessible, Hidalgo’s source had taken a screenshot of a photograph of the Virgen de Guadalupe which had been registered as stolen. This, said the source, was the painting that was now in California.
The screenshot shows a black-and-white photograph of a damaged painting propped up against a wall outside a church. There are holes and tears on its surface. Fold marks suggest that the painting had been concealed at some stage – hinting that it had been in the hands of smugglers.
Untangling how artefacts are smuggled out of Peru is one of the most intriguing aspects of OjoPúblico’s work. The team identified several main routes, one via Argentina – often through the antique markets of Buenos Aires – and another via Costa Rica to Miami. It’s hard to see how traffickers can operate without the complicity of officials such as custom agents or bureaucrats, says Hidalgo.
In October 2012, US investigators noticed that an unusually high number of Peruvian handicrafts were arriving at the home of César and Isabel Guardera in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Peruvian husband-and-wife team were later found to be part of a trafficking network which used illicitly procured export certificates to conceal its smuggling racket.
Hidalgo believes that the fold marks on the Virgen de Guadalupe not only reveal how it was trafficked, but also provide clues about the thief. If it had been stolen in its frame while legally out of the country, it would not have been folded. “It could be a local thief, probably one who received the proposal to steal it for very little money,” he speculates.
The audacity of the smuggling networks is impressive. In 2002, an enormous altarpiece, the Altar de Challapampa, was illegally moved from Peru to Mexico. “If you can smuggle something that size out of the country,” says Hidalgo, “imagine how easy it is to take a painting.”
It is impossible to know exactly how many artefacts have been stolen from Peru, nor the full extent of South America’s cultural patrimony. Many private and public collections have not been registered, for fear of the consequences should the pieces later prove to be stolen. Often, owners do not want to return valuable items, or even if they do, there is no amnesty to protect them from being accused of theft themselves.
Muddying the waters is the fact that, in Peru, the Catholic Church, which has vast collections of artworks and religious objects, has the legal status of a private person. Hidalgo explains that if he wants to know what objects have been stolen from national museums and libraries, he can send a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Culture, but the Church is different. “If I want to know what pieces are missing from the Catholic Church, from churches or from monasteries, I could not have that information because the Catholic Church has no obligation to give it to me.”
Recovery is also laden with a raft of bureaucratic problems. Objects taken out of Peru prior to 1970 do not have the same legal protection as those that were removed later, and artefacts that have not been officially declared “cultural patrimony” are harder to recover. “If you steal a book from the 16th century and that book has not been officially declared part of cultural patrimony, you could only be charged with theft like if you have stolen a present-day pair of shoes, or a lamp, or any book,” Hidalgo says.
Rare books and manuscripts are easy to smuggle and can be extremely valuable. In 2009, while working for the Lima-based newspaper El Comercio, Hidalgo investigated the theft of four rare books that were documented as belonging to the National Library of Peru. He was tipped off by a source who had received the books from a dealer who claimed to be working with library staff.
In 2010, on the day that Ramón Mujica took his oath as the new national director of the National Library of Peru, a carpenter discovered a pile of rubbish bags on the building’s roof. It was stuffed with manuscripts by Mariscal Andrés Avelino Cáceres, a Peruvian hero from the war of the Pacific.
According to Mujica, the manuscripts had been kept in two secure sites: a vault, and a bookcase in a restricted area to which only authorised personnel had access. “It was obvious that this was an inside job and that they were utilising this moment of an administrative hole with no national director for this theft to take place,” he says.
Mujica recounts this tale from a plush sofa in his apartment in Lima. He has the breezy air of a charismatic intellectual and is fluent and flamboyant in his use of English.
When the carpenter found the manuscripts, he recounts, they were carefully wrapped and prepared to be thrown out of the building. “That’s apparently how old manuscripts and books are stolen from public buildings. They come out through the garbage.”
Mujica initiated an investigation that continued throughout his six-year tenure as director. He believes that the investigation was intentionally stalled and halted, then eventually buried – due, he claims, to corruption that runs from library staff and legal administrators to government officials.
Eventually, Mujica himself was put under investigation – a smoke screen, he says. “Of course, they didn’t find anything, nothing.” He remains incredulous at the lack of progress on the thefts. “The verdict of the famous commission didn’t even mention the fact that books were being stolen from the National Library.”
In 2016, Mujica resigned and now, as a private citizen, he has contracted independent lawyers and initiated a criminal court case. “I have not allowed for this trial to just be closed,” he says. The case is ongoing.
Other cases have been more successful: in 2012, a 17th-century Quechua manuscript that had been stolen from the National Library was found in Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Library in Washington. The purchase was reversed and the Argentinian seller returned the manuscript to Lima on condition of anonymity.
Despite his frustrations, Mujica is proud of what he achieved at the library. He organised an international campaign entitled “Wanted! Lost books from the National Library of Peru. Reward: 30 million happy Peruvians.” His efforts resulted in the return of hundreds of books from all over world, some of them valued at more than $1 million (£725,000). He also invoked an amnesty that enabled local people to return stolen items.
“I spoke to the Archbishop of Lima to see if the citizens, in an act of anonymous confession, could give back the stolen goods in a black bag,” he says. “And that’s how we’ve received all these extraordinary things: books of sermons, manuscripts, maps… extraordinary documents.”
Part of the problem, says Mujica, was that nobody really knew what was in the library. Small catalogues of independent collections existed, and disjointed lists from various historical periods, including triumphant records made by Chilean troops who had plundered the library during the Occupation of Lima. But there was no unified catalogue.
In 2011, Mujica initiated the first complete inventory of the library. It took several months to complete and was carried out under strict surveillance to prevent thefts. New records were made and old ones cross-checked. “You can have complete lists of books, but part of your function is to corroborate that what you are announcing you actually have on your shelves, he says.”
The history of The National Library of Peru is marred by a tragic event. In 1943, the original library burned down and more than 140,000 books and manuscripts disappeared forever. “During my time, I discovered a paper, an official report done by the Peruvian state at the time, that the fire was not caused by an accidental source,” says Mujica.
One startling theory is that the director at the time did not want anybody to make an inventory of the collection as it would expose the extent of insider looting. Mujica says he has no idea if anyone would go to that extreme to cover their tracks, but he does believe that the fire was started intentionally. “The best way to get rid of the evidence of a major theft,” he says, “is by burning it all down.”
Inaccurate or inconsistent data makes theft easier to commit and harder to prove, while loopholes in international laws facilitate the trade in stolen objects. In 2010, a sale at the Lempertz Auction House in Brussels prompted theft alerts in seven Latin American countries. “The catalogue was filled with pre-Columbian pieces that Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia recognised as part of their cultural heritage,” wrote Hidalgo in his report on the incident.
Representatives of the countries involved were reassured by the Belgian foreign minister that Belgium would honour a UNESCO 1970 Convention that seeks to control the import, export and trafficking of cultural property. All the countries had to do was produce documents proving that the items belonged to them, that they were stolen, and that official proceedings had been initiated to seek their return. The evidence was requested three days before the sale.
“None of the embassies were able to demonstrate the illicit origin of the pieces in a timely manner, says Hidalgo. The Belgian Foreign Ministry declared itself not competent to intervene on the case. The auction carried through on September 11, 2010.”
OjoPúblico’s Fabiola Torres believes that existing mechanisms used by auction houses to carry out due diligence are not working. Databases such as those managed by the Art Loss Register (ALR) and Interpol are either exuberantly expensive, incomplete or inaccurate. ALR is a commercial database used by many international auction houses. Searches can be carried out in batches of 25 for £500, which is prohibitively expensive, says Torres. (Though regular users, such as auction houses, do have access to different rates.)
Further, the ALR, which is run by British businessman Julian Radcliffe, has been accused of engaging in dubious practices such as the issuing of inaccurate certification. The company has been embroiled in several high-profile cases, including that of the art dealer Subhash Kapoor, currently on trial in India accused of selling stolen antiques, paintings and artefacts through his New York gallery.
Another well-known database maintained by Interpol is incomplete, says Torres. “It’s not updated. It has a lot of mistakes in the names of the pieces. All the information is in English and some translations are not according to the correct culture or name.”
Torres believes that auction houses do not follow strict enough protocols. “They do not ask enough questions,” she says. “They say, ‘Oh! But we have ALR. They certify everything we sell or we buy.’” The team at OjoPúblico argue that these certificates are not always accurate and are seldom questioned.
A spokesman for Christie’s, which submits its auction catalogues to the ALR but also draws on other international archives, experts and sources when checking provenance, points to its policy on the looting of cultural property. An extract of which states: “Christie’s adheres to bilateral treaties and international laws related to cultural property and patrimony… as a part of that due diligence, we work closely in partnership with many national and international organisations that pursue the same goals.”
Hidalgo traced the photograph of the Virgen de Guadalupe in the screenshot back to Fred Truslow, a US lawyer who had taken it in the 80s while compiling a catalogue of more than 2,000 paintings in Peru’s churches. Truslow had wanted to ensure they were properly documented in case they were stolen.
In February 2017, Hidalgo travelled to the US to meet Truslow. They compared the screenshot from the database with a photograph of the painting that the source had taken in California. The paintings appeared to be identical – but it was the damage that proved conclusive. At some point, the painting had been restored, and the positions of holes and tears shown in the screenshot matched the positions of signs of restoration in the new photograph.
“It proves that it’s the same painting because there’s no possibility that two paintings have the same signs or same details,” says Hidalgo.
Hidalgo’s team then traced the Virgen to its current owners: the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in California, which had loaned the painting to the Bowers Museum. At the end of June 2017, Hidalgo contacted the Diocese by email. They have since confirmed that they purchased the painting in San Diego in 2015 and believe that they did so legally.
There is always a way to justify owning a stolen artefact, Hidalgo says. “Private owners might say, ‘Well, I bought it 30 years ago and I had no clue that it was a stolen piece,’ or, ‘It was in the will of my grandfather and I received it as a gift.’” Hidalgo does not believe that the Diocese were complicit in the trafficking, but he does believe they are in possession of a stolen painting.
The story of the Virgen may take many more months to reach a conclusion. The case is now in the hands of the Peruvian Ministry of Culture.
“The next step is that the Peruvian authorities ask for the painting, or at least an examination of the painting, to be completely sure that it is the same one,” Hidalgo tells me. “I have no doubt that it is the painting, but there is a methodology that has to be followed to confirm it according to international standards in the art market.”
Whatever the outcome, the Virgen case illustrates the mess that the Memoria Robada team has set out to expose. By making the database publicly available and free to use, Hidalgo’s team has ensured that, in future, it will be harder for anyone – be they an individual, a religious body, a museum or an auction house – to claim ownership of stolen heritage.
But in the meantime, he says, there are plenty more paintings to be found.