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ICOM for Media Distribution

Red List of Latin-American Cultural Objects at Risk
STOP the Illicit Trafficking in Heritage

ICOM announces the official publication of the Red List of Latin-American Cultural Objects at Risk.
Latin America's abundant, varied and priceless pre-Columbian and Colonial cultural heritage is in grave danger. Numerous objects have been stolen and smuggled out of their countries of origin and the sites they came from irrevocably damaged. The need to combat this devastating phenomenon is absolutely vital. The Red List is intended both as a general appeal to potential purchasers not to buy these objects and as a tool for those attempting to protect Latin America's most valuable treasures.

Pre-Columbian civilisations such as those of the Mayas and the Incas have left a heritage of monuments, stelae, tombs and a variety of objects such as ceramic vessels, jade pendants, textiles and gold artefacts scattered throughout Latin America. This priceless heritage is under attack and irreparable damage has already been done.

As early as the 1960s, looting of Central American and Andean archaeological sites attained vast proportions, and many hidden treasures were tragically lost. In some cases, this was - and still is - due to chance finds by local villagers, neglect, tourist expeditions and urbanisation. But increasingly, organised gangs are paying the local population to carry out the destruction. They identify areas which are so sparsely-populated and remote that they are virtually impossible to police, and generally work by night. The equipment used ranges from ordinary hatchets to tractors and explosives (used to blast a hole in a tomb or to tunnel into a ruin). Such looting is extremely destructive, and damages the setting of the objects, making it impossible to reconstruct the context which is so crucial to our understanding of the history of the sites. These places are often the sole sources of information about particular historical periods. The objects looted range from portable artefacts to huge stone sculptures, which are sawn into slabs.

Latin America's Colonial cultural treasures are also subject to looting. The churches, monasteries and other monuments contain numerous sculptures, paintings and precious ritual objects. Demand for these objects has risen significantly in Europe and North America. Thefts in monuments and museums are in most of the case organized by international crime rings.

Both pre-Columbian and Colonial objects are essential to our understanding of the continent's history, traditional beliefs and religions. They constitute a collective memory and common heritage which deserve to be treated with the utmost respect. They are part of the identity of Latin America. Every object looted means a gap that will remain unfilled in our knowledge of the history of mankind.

The Red List of Latin-American Cultural Objects at Risk is one of the instruments which can be used to counter the illicit trade in art and antiquities. It identifies the categories of pre-Columbian and Colonial objects (from all parts of the Latin American continent) which are most frequently looted and are often offered for sale in auction catalogues or on the black market. All of these categories are protected by national legislation and banned from export, and may under no circumstances be offered for sale.

The Red List is an appeal to museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors not to buy these objects. It is also intended to help customs officials, police officers and art dealers to identify them. However, it is not exhaustive: the fact that an object is not mentioned in the Red List does not mean that it is exempt from trade restrictions.

A Red List of African Archaeological Objects at Risk was published in 2000. The media attention surrounding its publication has discouraged potential buyers, who are now wary of purchasing the types of object concerned. Some objects belonging to the categories listed in the African Red List have been returned to their countries of origin. Earlier this year, an Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk was published to combat looting of museums and archaeological sites resulting from the war in Iraq.



- It has been estimated that 80% of all known archaeological sites in the Yucatan peninsula have suffered looting. The most sought-after objects are polychrome Maya vessels, jade pendants, and reliefs from stelae or other monuments. In their search for these items, looters have destroyed monuments and tombs in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, making it impossible ever to reconstruct the history of the sites.

-Teotihuacan masks provide another illustration of the massive proportions on which looting now takes place in Latin America. Although hundreds of these masks are known to exist, only four have been recovered by scientific excavation: the rest have been found by looters. The situation is critical: most of the masks are now in private collections and pre-Columbian auction house catalogues routinely feature several. Jade Olmec figurines are also looted and illegally exported in large numbers.

- The state of Nayarit, in Mexico, is also severely affected by looting: 90 % of Nayarit clay figures, which are much prized on the art market, come from illegal excavations. In some cases, they are the result of finds on farmland or cattle ranches which are impossible to regulate and therefore difficult to monitor and recover.

- Similar conditions pertain in the Amazon River region, where the inaccessible terrain and the difficulties involved in monitoring the area encourage looting and illicit trade in figurative urns, which are especially valued on account of their rarity.

- The high incidence of tomb robberies in Ecuador and Colombia is also due to the remoteness of the locations, which makes it extremely difficult to implement security measures. Clay Jama Coaque figures and vessels, which have been found in great numbers, are very popular with the art market. Conversely, metal artefacts such as the Tumaco-Tolita masks are especially sought-after because they are extremely rare and valuable, this has led to calamities such as the robberies in 1979 and 1987-88 at the Carlos Zevallos Menéndez Museum in Guayaquil, Ecuador. On the latter occasion, burglars deliberately started a fire to distract attention from the robbery and numerous pieces were destroyed or stolen and never recovered.

- Eagle pendants in gold and metalwork from Costa Rica and Panama have recently suffered a similar fate. In February 2003, most of the gold and silver collection of the Museo Antropologico Reina Torres de Arauz in Panama City was stolen. Although the majority of the pieces, which date from 400 to 1500 AD, were recovered in May 2003, some are still missing. Other items frequently looted from Central America are openwork grindstones and jade pendants.

- Although small objects are illegally exported with greater facility, massive sculptures not usually thought of as portable are also stolen and illegally exported. In Colombia, San Agustin sculptures are cut into pieces that are easily transportable. 17 robberies have been recorded in the past 15 years. The same situation has been observed in the Peten region (Guatemala), where Maya stelae have been cut into pieces prior to being removed.

- Certain parts of Peru resemble a lunar landscape dotted with numerous craters. These are ancient cemeteries, where huaqueros, as they are called, have looted tombs in search of ancient textiles, feather cloths, ceramic objects such as vessels from the Moche period, which can reach very high prices in the market, wooden Inca keros or Chimu and Chincha carved oars. The best-known case of looting is the spectacular theft of archaeological material belonging to the Moche civilisation (200-700 AD) from tombs in the Sipan area, on the northern coast of Peru.

- Further south, in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, wooden snuff trays are also much targeted by looters.

All these thefts have been carried out despite the existence of national legislation banning the acquisition and export of these objects, which are an integral part of Latin-American cultural heritage.



Latin-American Colonial objects are prized by the art market, as they reflect the artistic, religious and technological métissage between Europeans and indigenous populations that took place during the Colonial period. They often present original characteristics of style and composition.
- According to church officials 10 % of Peruvian churches have been looted in recent years . In a spectacular seizure, customs officers discovered 42 religious treasures at the sea port of Callao, Peru. The haul included religious paintings with gold-plated frames, two canvases, gold-plated cutlery, colonial furniture, a Eucharistic ciborium and an ivory crucifix.
The artefacts, which were bound for Montevideo, Uruguay, are all originals dating back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and had been stolen from churches in Cusco and Puno (1)

In Guatemala the number of reported thefts from churches and convents increased from 39 in 1996 to 125 in 2000. Of the 255 artefacts stolen in the last two and a half years, the police have only recovered 29.

- Many of these works of art are still used in Roman Catholic worship and can be seen in churches and processions. Looting simultaneously destroys irreplaceable historical evidence, priceless works of art and valuable community traditions, as in the case of Mexican representations of Christ in ivory or corn-stem paste, and of most of the sculptures and vessels found in churches.

- Whilst the Red List was being prepared for publication, we were informed of the theft in Paraguay of two Colonial sculptures from the Templo Parroquial del Conjunto Misionero de Santos Cosme y Damian (state of Misiones in Paraguay) during the night of 18-19 February 2003.

-In Argentina, on 8 January, 2003, four early 19th-century candelabras and numerous silver and bronze votive plates were stolen from the Daughters of the Divine Saviour convent church in Buenos Aires, from which valuable relics, sabres and swords had already been stolen in February 2002.

- Worse still, thefts from churches frequently result in the destruction of art works: paintings are cut out of their frames and rolled up, frontals (elaborated silver panels that covers altars) are frequently divided into pieces which are sold separately, and so on.


Legal measures
Latin-American countries have extensive national laws for the protection of their cultural heritage. The vast majority of them have also ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but very few have ratified the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention (both of these international agreements target illicit trade in art works).

Raising public awareness
Latin-American countries have mounted large-scale campaigns to raise public awareness: there are notices at international airports requesting tourists to respect cultural heritage; short films enjoining the public to help preserve cultural heritage have been shown on television and in cinemas; and Colombia has a special youth brigade, the Vigias del Patrimonio.

Training of police and customs officers
More police and custom officers need to receive specialist training. Argentina has set up a Policía Aeronautica Nacional unit at Buenos Aires airport to screen for illegal exports of art and antiquities. So far police have successfully seized 20,000 objects. In 1998, 136 cultural objects were taken from the Museum of Colonial Art in Bogota (Colombia), of which 39 were Colonial sculptures of the Quito school. With the help of the inventory, the Metropolitan Police were able to recover some of these figures in August 2000.

In 2003, US Customs returned 26 stone and ceramic Mayan objects dating from between 500 AD and 1200 AD, which had been stolen from the Peten lowlands, in Guatemala. A stolen San Agustin statue, which was found in 1996 in an auction house in Denmark, has not yet been returned, as there is not sufficient proof that the statue entered the country illegally.

1 Source:, 17 June 2003.
2 The Latin-American countries which have not yet ratified the UNESCO Convention are Chile, Guyana, Paraguay Surinam and Venezuela.
3 The Latin-American countries which have ratified the UNIDROIT Convention are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru.

Contact :
ICOM Internacional : Valérie Jullien,
Tel + 33 (0) 1 47 34 05 00 Fax +33 (0) 1 44 10 40 07



Updated: 20 June 2005