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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
OF PRE-COLUMBIAN OBJECTS
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.
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
- 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
Further south, in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia,
wooden snuff trays are also much targeted by looters.
OF COLONIAL OBJECTS
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)
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
-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.
TO STOP THE ILLICIT TRADE IN ART AND ANTIQUITIES