Historic Paintings Returned to Peru
“Saint Dominic,” left, an 18th-century oil on canvas, depicts Saint Dominic offering a wedding veil
Restoring Cultural Heritage
18th-Century Paintings Returned to Peru
The 18th-century religious paintings we returned to the government of Peru yesterday might not have been worth millions of dollars, but they symbolized something far more valuable than money—a nation’s cultural heritage.
The ceremony to return the two paintings, which took place at the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, also highlighted the efforts of our Art Crime Team to help send recovered works back to their rightful country of origin.
“We are pleased to be able to return these paintings to the government of Peru,” Kevin Perkins, assistant director of our Criminal Investigative Division, told the Peruvian ambassador and others gathered at the embassy. “It is always a good thing to be able to give stolen property back to its rightful owner.”
Every year, hundreds of paintings, artifacts, and other works disappear from churches and monasteries in small villages in Peru and other Latin American countries, said Special Agent Gregg Horner, a regional Art Crime Team coordinator in our Washington office who worked on this case for three years. Often, paintings are simply cut out of their frames and taken off the walls of small churches that can’t afford security for their artwork. Then the objects are smuggled into the U.S. and sold.
At the ceremony at the Peruvian Embassy were (from left) Juan Jose Sanchez, general of the
Such illicit trade not only “deprives the Peruvian people of their religious and cultural heritage,” Perkins noted, “it corrupts the legitimate market for works of art.” From both a criminal and cultural perspective, it’s a serious problem that doesn’t usually make headlines.
This particular case began in 2005, when a man brought the paintings to the United States from Bolivia. The oil-on-canvas works are of the Cusco and Lima style of religious painting meant to inspire devotion. During the Colonial period, such works were hung in churches, monasteries, and convents throughout Peru. The paintings were consigned to a Virginia gallery for sale, but the dealer suspected they were stolen because they had been cut from their frames and because the seller didn’t have the proper documents—neither a U.S. Customs declaration nor appropriate export certificates from Peru. Wisely, the art dealer called the FBI, and a case was opened in our Richmond office.
Based on a 1997 agreement between the U.S. and Peru under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA), it is illegal to import Colonial-era religious paintings into the U.S. from Peru without documentation certifying that the export did not violate Peruvian law.
The CCPIA gave the Bureau legal authority to seize the artwork. That happened in 2007. Since then, the Department of Justice has worked to have the paintings forfeited to the U.S. government, despite claims of ownership by the man who brought them into the country from Bolivia. The U.S. eventually prevailed, paving the way for the paintings to be returned to Peru.
“It is an honor and a privilege to witness the return of such precious objects that are part of the vast cultural heritage of Peru,” said Luis Miguel Valdivieso, Peruvian ambassador to the United States. Other artworks recovered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with objects from a private citizen, were also returned to the Peruvian government during yesterday’s event.
Agent Horner was pleased to be on hand for the ceremony, which marks another success for the Art Crime Team. Since its inception in 2004, the team has recovered more than 2,600 items of cultural property valued at over $142 million.
- Art Theft Program