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Peruvian Back Flap, 1997

Peruvian Back Flap, 1997

In 1987 in northern Peru, the ruins of the Moche (pronounced mo-chay) civilization, which flourished from about 100 B.C. to 700 A.D., were being studied by archeologists. Unfortunately, thieves broke into the royal tomb of the Lord of Sipan, getting away with unbelievable treasures. One of the most valuable artifacts stolen from the royal tomb was an extremely rare Moche backflap made of gold, copper, and silver. Moche warrior-priests would wear the backflapas armor during battle to shield their backsides.

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The backflap on display. Tomb looters in Peru.

Ten years later, in August 1997, black market smugglers Denis Garcia and Orlando Mendez, both of Miami, were looking for a buyer for a rare Peruvian artifact—a gold backflap. Garcia contacted an art brokerage firm in New York to see if he could arrange a sale.Unbeknownst to him, the company was part of an FBI undercover operation targeting art theft, and he was referred to a Philadelphia based undercover FBI agent who posed as an art broker. The undercover agent contacted Garcia, who described the item for sale. Garcia’s selling price: a cool $1.6 million. Garcia gave the "art broker" a few days to contemplate the offer before calling him back and arranging a face-to-face meeting.

This initial meeting took place at a rest stop in New Jersey. Garcia did not have the backflap with him. A deal was made to contact the agent when it was ready for delivery. Nearly four weeks later, Mendez called the agent to say the backflap was in New York. They arranged to meet at the same rest stop.

The FBI agents arrived first. Then, a black limo bearing diplomatic tags pulled up; it was Garcia, Mendez, and Francisco Iglesias, who introduced himself as Consul General of Panama and presented his business card. The backflap was in a suitcase in the trunk of the car. The undercover agent told the group he wanted them to drive to Philadelphia to have an art expert authenticate the item. When they arrived and pulled into a hotel parking lot, Garcia opened the trunk to reveal the priceless artifact. At that point, the trio was surrounded and the men were arrested.

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The recovered backflap. Consul General Iglesias

Based on his diplomatic status, Consul General Iglesias was released. He is living in Panama. There is a warrant for his arrest, should he return to the United States. Garcia and Mendez pled guilty to interstate transportation of stolen property and smuggling. In July 1998, the backflap was turned over to the Peruvian Government in an official ceremony.