- Associated Press - Friday, July 22, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Seven priceless Mayan artifacts looted decades ago from Guatemala are returning to the land of their creation after a representative for an antiquities collector grew suspicious of their origin and contacted the FBI.

Experts called in by the agency quickly determined the limestone pieces, all more than a thousand years old, were removed illegally from two specific regions of Guatemala and sold to a California collector in the 1970s.

“Four larger limestone pieces date to 400 to 600 A.D.,” said FBI special agent Elizabeth Rivas, whose specialty is art crimes investigation. “Experts believe they are symbolic of the Earth Monster connecting the Earth to the underworld.”

Three smaller pieces covered in hieroglyphics likely once made up a calendar outside an ancient temple in Guatemala’s Petexbatun region, Rivas said. They are believed to be 1,400 to 1,100 years old.

All seven were placed on display at Los Angeles’ FBI headquarters Friday for a news conference attended by U.S. and Guatemalan officials. The consul general to Guatemala’s Los Angeles consulate called them priceless.

“They are part of our culture. Part of our people. Part of our earth. Every piece that is returned to Guatemala for us is very important,” said Roberto Archila, who thanked the FBI and U.S. government.

He said Guatemala plans to ship them to a museum dedicated to Mayan artifacts and eventually put them on display.

Rivas said the FBI became aware of the artifacts’ existence in the 1970s when authorities charged an antiquities dealer with illegally selling other pieces stolen from Guatemala.

“Because we could not determine where in Guatemala they came from or when they came to the U.S. we could not prove they were stolen,” she said of the seven pieces.

Had the agency had the capability to determine their provenance then, Rivas added, the dealer likely would have faced additional charges. She said officials believe the buyer didn’t know they were stolen.

“An innocent buyer who is a collector purchased the items inside the US and he had them for many, many years,” she said.

After that person died an individual handling the estate discovered the pieces had no papers showing their provenance, or chain of ownership, which would also show if they left Guatemala legally. That’s when the FBI and its experts were called in.

Rivas declined to identify the collector or the third party other than to say they were from California. She said the person who contacted the FBI was happy to learn the pieces are going back to Guatemala.

Since 1970 the United States has cooperated with countries around the world in efforts to return looted artifacts.

The FBI formed an art crime team in 2004 to help in that effort, and since then officials say it has recovered more than 14,850 items valued at more than $165 billion.

“We’re really happy to be part of this,” said Deirdre Fike, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office. “This is a good news story.”

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