HomeNewsAnalysisChile Museum Heist Reveals Black Market in Cultural Objects

Chile Museum Heist Reveals Black Market in Cultural Objects


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.

SEE ALSO: Chile News and Profile

South of Concepción, the museum -- founded in 1969 -- serves to preserve Mapuche culture and objects. The Mapuche are Chile’s largest Indigenous community, with about 1.7 million people.

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.

InSight Crime Analysis

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.

SEE ALSO: Black Market for Mayan Artifacts Still Thrives in Guatemala

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.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

BOLIVIA / 30 NOV 2022

Lake Titicaca serves as a crossroads for varied criminal economies, from cocaine shipments to trafficking the frogs that live along…


In 2021, most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a marked increase in murders. Resurgent violence was to…

CHILE / 19 JAN 2023

Chile's lucrative copper industry is beleaguered by daring attacks on trains carrying tons of copper through the desert.

About InSight Crime


Venezuela Coverage Continues to be Highlighted

3 MAR 2023

This week, InSight Crime co-director Jeremy McDermott was the featured guest on the Americas Quarterly podcast, where he provided an expert overview of the changing dynamics…


Venezuela's Organized Crime Top 10 Attracts Attention

24 FEB 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published its ranking of Venezuela’s ten organized crime groups to accompany the launch of the Venezuela Organized Crime Observatory. Read…


InSight Crime on El País Podcast

10 FEB 2023

This week, InSight Crime co-founder, Jeremy McDermott, was among experts featured in an El País podcast on the progress of Colombia’s nascent peace process.


InSight Crime Interviewed by Associated Press

3 FEB 2023

This week, InSight Crime’s Co-director Jeremy McDermott was interviewed by the Associated Press on developments in Haiti as the country continues its prolonged collapse. McDermott’s words were republished around the world,…


Escaping Barrio 18

27 JAN 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published an investigation charting the story of Desafío, a 28-year-old Barrio 18 gang member who is desperate to escape gang life. But there’s one problem: he’s…