While ruins have long been looted to supply the black market trade in antiquities, silver and textiles stolen from a museum in Chile reveal how thieves also target depositories of artifacts and precious metals.
Guards discovered the break-in at the Cañete Mapuche Museum -- which houses some 1,400 objects related to the Indigenous Mapuche community -- on September 18, entering to find four glass cases shattered, BioBioChile reported. The thieves slipped through a bathroom window after they deactivated the museum’s alarm system.
More than 100 items were stolen, including Mapuche silverwork, fabrics and stone artifacts, according to a news release from Chile's National Service of Cultural Patrimony (Servicio Nacional del Patrimonio Cultural). Alerts were sent out, and investigators with the Brigade for Crimes Against the Environment and Cultural Heritage (la Brigada de Delitos contra el Medioambiente y el Patrimonio Cultural – BIDEMA) were called in to take charge of the case, according to the release.
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Reports placed no value on the stolen artifacts but Culture Minister Carlos Maillet Aránguiz said in the news release that the theft “represents immense cultural damage.”
According to BIDEMA, more than 24,000 paleontological and archaeological objects have been seized in Chile between 2010 and 2017, La Tercera reported. Authorities also seized some 1,700 pieces of cultural heritage during the past seven years.
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Though Indigenous textiles and silverwork may seem less valuable than the items typically associated with the illicit artifacts trade -- such as pre-Columbian statues and gold objects -- there could be a black market for them.
“The Mapuche have a recognizable name, there is a lot of international respect for their people, and there could be interest in having material,” Allison Davis, the executive director of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the US State Department, told InSight Crime.
Davis, an archaeologist with expertise in Latin America, pointed to the theft of ceremonial textiles made by Indigenous people in Bolivia’s Coroma, an isolated village in the Andes, as one famous example of Indigenous items stolen to sell on the black market.
While Davis said she had no specific knowledge of the Mapuche silverwork, it may be worth more to the thieves if kept intact rather than smelted, which is the case for pre-Columbian gold from Colombia.
"If someone is able to move it in the art market, in general ... there is usually a profit to be made," she said.
The largest market, she said, for Latin American objects remains the United States, due to proximity and collector interest.
By happenstance, just 10 days after the Chile break-in, the United States finalized an agreement with Chile that imposes import restrictions on archaeological material over 250 years old. While the Mapuche objects would not fall under that category, the same law that allows the United States to enter the agreement also prohibits importing stolen cultural property.
The United States has signed similar bilateral agreements with Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. Davis said the agreements strengthen enforcement by modifying the US customs code to require anyone importing artifacts to show proof of export authorization.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported in 2017 the recovery of $150 million in artifacts during the past decade.
Looted or stolen objects, however, are usually never seen again. For example, nine out of ten cultural artifacts -- including archaeological pieces, liturgical objects and religious art -- stolen in Mexico are never recovered, according to a 2016 Animal Político investigation.
Ransacking of ruins has long occurred in Latin America. Between the 1960s and ‘80s, demand from museums and collectors for pre-Columbian objects led to the plundering of Guatemala’s Mayan sites. More recently, collectors’ tastes have turned to Colonial art, often found in churches with little protection.
Thieves have also targeted other depositories, such as religious institutions and document archives, in recent years.
Without breaking a single lock, thieves stole 36 pieces from Colombia’s Huila Archaeological Museum in 2008. The objects -- mostly gold jewelry valued at more than one billion Colombian pesos (about $260,500 at today's exchange rate) -- were not recovered, according to a 2015 report in the Diario de Huila. In Argentina, authorities investigated whether the pilfering of a 900-year-old mummy and some 400 gold and silver coins from two separate museums were connected, according to a 2008 report in La Nación.
One of the most notorious robberies occurred in 2015 in Guatemala’s colonial city of Antigua. At least ten masked armed men burst into Fundación para las Bellas Artes (Funba), tied up its employees and stole some 300 pieces, including part of an essential collection of pre-Hispanic, colonial and modern art.
Six months later, authorities raided the home of Raúl Arturo Contreras Chávez who was wanted by the United States on drug trafficking charges. Instead of cocaine, police found about a dozen paintings, including 12 religious works from the colonial period.
According to a Plaza Pública investigation, 13 formed part of Funba's collection.