U.S. Returns More Than 400 Pre-Columbian Relics to Peru

(Courtesy Ice - )
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

MIAMI, June 13 -- More than 400 pre-Columbian artifacts believed to have been taken from ancient graves in Peru were given back to that country here today in what was described by officials as the largest such recovery since the 1970s, when Peru and the United States agreed to import restrictions on the cultural artifacts.

The cache of artifacts, briefly on display here, was described by experts as "priceless."

There was a stylish clay pot, inscribed with a monkey-like figure. A feathered royal poncho. A child's woven tunic. A snuff holder carved from bone. The pieces had been buried in Peruvian graves 1,000 years ago or more, experts said, with some items as old as 3,500 years.

The man who had been selling the items here from his 1985 GMC cutaway van, according to authorities, was letting them go for a bargain, however: $2,000 for some of the most valuable pieces.

"A quick glance to the pieces displayed will give you an idea of the importance of this recovery," said Jorge E. Roman Morey, consul general of Peru in Miami. "These pieces belong to humanity and not private individuals."

Portions of coastal Peru are so rich in ancient grave sites dug up by robbers that "from an airplane, it looks like the area has been bombed," the consul general said.

Detecting and prosecuting smugglers and dealers of the objects in the United States has proved difficult, however. Some of the items might easily be mistaken for tourist trinkets.

"It takes a curious customs agent to pursue one of these cases," said Carol E. Damian, a Florida International University art expert who aided the government in the case.

Indeed, the case that produced the large cache seems to have been clouded in ambiguity.

Ugo Bagnato, an elderly Italian man, was discovered keeping the items at a suburban warehouse here in September 2005. He sold two pieces to an undercover agent, one a clay pot approximately 3,500 years old and the other a statue with a gold ringed nose that is about 1,800 years old. The price for each was $2,000, agents said.

But according to his attorney, Bagnato is an archaeologist without any criminal record and had legitimately acquired the collection from a Venezuelan acquaintance who, in turn, had long ago acquired them through inheritance.

Rather than risking a jury trial, Bagnato pleaded guilty to one count of a five-count indictment. He was sentenced to time served -- or about 17 months, according to his attorney, Maria Elena Perez.

"They made him out to be some grave robber, but he's not," she said.

Nevertheless, officials here used the ceremony today to warn others from trading in Peruvian antiquities.

"These artifacts are not souvenirs," said Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "The items being returned today are a thread of a nation rich in cultural heritage."

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