Tuesday, July 26, 2005

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents yesterday returned to the Peruvian government a 16th-century colonial masterpiece, El Altar de Challapampa, which was stolen from that country in 2002.

John P. Clark, ICE deputy assistant secretary, and Eduardo Ferrero, the Peruvian ambassador to the United States, announced the return in a joint statement, saying the altarpiece had been stolen from its temporary location near Lake Titicaca at Challapampa, Peru.

It was discovered in May 2003 after agents at the ICE field office in New York began an investigation, locating the piece in Santa Fe, N.M., at Ron Messick Fine Arts and Antiquities.

ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi said the New York agents worked closely with the Washington, D.C., Interpol office and the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, seeking a criminal complaint in the theft against Ron Messick.

But charges later were dropped when Mr. Messick died.

Mr. Raimondi said executors of Mr. Messick’s estate voluntarily surrendered the artifact to the Department of Homeland Security and it was stored in El Paso, Texas.

“This altarpiece is on its way back to its rightful place,” Mr. Clark said. “By seizing and returning El Altar de Challapampa, we transform it from a plundered artifact to a symbol of what cooperation and a mutual respect of cultural treasures between nations can bring.”

Mr. Ferrero described the return of the artwork as the result of the coordinated work among U.S. authorities at all levels and the government of Peru.

“This case serves as a warning for those who consider a nation’s cultural artifacts mere commodities to be bought and sold,” Mr. Ferrero said. “We will vigorously pursue these thefts and work with our international partners to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.”

Mr. Raimondi said Bernardo Bitti, an Italian Jesuit missionary, painted and gilded El Altar de Challapampa in the late 16th century after it was carved by sculptor Pedro de Vargas. He said the altarpiece is a polychrome wooden carving of the angels Michael and Gabriel beneath a crucifixion in four large pieces.

The artifact weighs more than 800 pounds and stands nearly 12 feet high when assembled, he said.

The recovery and repatriation of the altar came in accordance with a memorandum of understanding between the governments of the United States and Peru concerning the imposition of import restrictions on archaeological material from the pre-Hispanic cultures and under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.

Homeland Security has law-enforcement-implementing authority under the act.

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