"STOLEN Treasures -- Missing Links," a dramatic exhibition about pre-Columbian art looting and smuggling, will convince all but the greediest of dealers that the rape and plunder of archaeological sites in Latin America must stop.
Visually, however, the point of this show, which opens tomorrow at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall, is to place on view, for the first time, 500 of a $1.5 million lode of 800 ancient Peruvian masterpieces and artifacts recovered by Customs officers beginning in January 1981, when they stopped an American art dealer, David Bernstein, for a routine check at Dulles Airport.
Confiscated after Bernstein had undervalued the objects at $1,785, these and other objects subsequently seized in his New York apartment were returned last summer to the Peruvian government. Since 1929, Peru has claimed ownership of all pre-Columbian art unearthed after that date, and forbids its export without a permit.
The elaborately designed show, dotted with audio-visuals, begins with the tan suitcase that tipped off Customs agents by its extraordinary smell. Bernstein told Customs officials that the objects had "just been dug up from graves."
The open suitcase, on which Bernstein's name has been discreetly taped over, brims with objects from the haul--Inca silver cups, gold and turquoise beads and beautiful ceramics dating from 900 B.C. to the 16th century. Theatrically illuminated, this section also features photographs and a film of grave-robbers, or "huaqueros," going about their work, tragically destroying hard archaeological evidence as they go.
The next of the four sections places in historical context the seven pre-Columbian cultures of Peru. With glorious original objects, charted time lines and a giant audio-visual display, it links them with other world cultures. It also presents the flow of Andean art from the ancient Chavin culture of the first millenium B.C. to the great 16th-century Inca civilization, which was systematically wiped out by the greatest pre-Columbian looters of them all--Pizarro and his Spanish conquistadors, who sold plots on the Pyramid of the Sun for excavation by treasure hunters.
With photographic cutaways and displays of delicate tools used by archaeologists--juxtaposed with the dynamite and pickaxes used by looters--the next section attempts to make clear what is lost when objects are wrested from their sites without archaeological methodology, leaving them orphans in time and depriving scholars of precious information.
This point is hammered home. Children can listen to the story of the owl-shaped Moche pot destroyed by a smuggler's pick, never to take his rightful place in history--another "missing link."
This is a didactic show, and if there is an argument with it, it will come from art lovers who might wish for less visual clutter, less noise and greater isolation of the many masterpieces on view, along with more scholarly descriptions of what they are and what they mean.
Oddly, the Geographic, for all its publishing capacity, has not seen fit to supply a catalogue for this treasure-trove, though one is being produced for July delivery by a new foundation, FUNDAMUSEO, set up to raise $5 million in the United States toward the $30 million needed to build the National Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Lima.
But for all its confusion, the final room--fairly bursting with beautiful objects--should satisfy any viewer in search of masterpieces to ponder.
"I had no idea the quality of these works was so high," said one visiting scholar as she eyed the rare and beautiful Nazca feathered poncho, extraordinary for its exotic colors and state of preservation. "No wonder Dr. Evans was so upset."
She was referring to the late Clifford Evans of the Smithsonian, who was immediately summoned by Customs when the haul was discovered at Dulles. He died later that day of a heart attack.
This show is a celebration of sorts for those who have fought for tighter regulation of the art smuggling trade.
The seizure has led not only to newly stringent enforcement by Customs officials here and in Peru, but also to a bilateral agreement that permits U.S. Customs to seize and return such objects and prosecute the offenders. Last December, Congress also ratified the UNESCO Convention of 1970 on illicit import and export and of cultural properties. The tide has not been stopped, but it has been stemmed by numerous subsequent seizures by Customs, according to Peruvian officials.
On loan from the Peruvian government, the works will tour eight American museums after the show closes here in December.