Culture trafficking: blurred identity and lost memory
In September 2010, the auction house Lempertz, the oldest in Belgium and one of the most prestigious in Europe, announced the sale of a lot that triggered the alerts of seven Latin American embassies accredited in Brussels. The catalog was filled with pre-Columbian pieces that Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia recognized as part of their cultural heritage. Once the negotiations with Interpol and the local police were exhausted, the agents of those countries requested an emergency meeting with the Belgian Chancellery. They had been expecting a tense meeting, as had happened months before in the wake of another auction, but the minister who received them had encouraging news: Belgium had just ratified the Unesco Convention of 1970 which seeks to control the import, export and trafficking of goods Cultural rights in the world, and was determined to fulfill it. The only problem was that each country had to provide previously documented evidence that the pieces belonged to them, that they had also been stolen, and, above all, that there was a judicial case that claimed them. Everything, when it was just three days before the sale.
After the meeting, intense coordination was initiated between the embassies and their foreign ministries to obtain this evidence. "Without them, it is impossible for the Belgian government to do anything to stop this auction," said the Chargé d'affaires of Guatemala from Brussels, according to case documents that for the first time come to light as part of the Stolen Memory project, an effort Which has included the review of judicial records, theft alerts, technical reports, secret reports and interviews in six countries, to unveil the transnational mechanisms of trafficking in cultural heritage in Latin America.
The documents were obtained and analyzed, on the initiative of OjoPúblico, by an alliance of journalistic teams integrated by La Nación (Costa Rica), Public Square (Guatemala), Political Animal (Mexico) and Checked (Argentina).
One such report notes that the same day of the meeting of Latin American diplomats in the Belgian Chancellery, a spokesman for the auction house communicated to explain his position. "He assured us that Casa Lempertz is respectful of the law, and that before each auction they make sure that the pieces to be sold are not stolen," the Central American diplomat said. Lempertz's spokesman said his procedures included sending the police a list of the objects to be auctioned, and that the owners were asked to sign an affidavit on their legal provenance. The format of the document -reviewed for this research- has only half a page with three questions based on the declarant's word. It does not require more documentary evidence than a list attached on the objects to be consigned for sale.
In spite of the efforts, none of the embassies could demonstrate in time the illicit origin of the pieces. The Belgian Chancellery declared itself without competence to intervene in the case. The auction was done anyway on September 11, 2010.
It was at least the second effort by several Latin American countries to halt the sale of cultural heritage assets in the region in the same year, according to the reports examined. Eight months earlier, the embassies of Peru, Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia had claimed for another auction of the same Casa Lempertz, which announced pre-Columbian pieces from "a private European museum". In the lot there were pieces of the cultures Chavin, Tlatilco, Tumaco and Tiahuanaco, among others. "Several of the objects contained in the auction catalog belong to the International Council of Museums' (ICOM) Red List of Latin American Cultural Property in Danger," warned the letter sent by the four embassies together to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs . The effort would fail for the same cause.
Both incidents reveal the alibis of the global looted goods market in Latin America. Only between 2008 and 2016, the main auction houses in Europe and the United States put on sale more than 7 thousand objects of the archaeological heritage of Peru. In a similar period, between 2010 and 2016, authorities in Costa Rica detected the sale of relics of their past in at least thirty-three auctions, and those of Guatemala in 26 occasions, according to official reports obtained for this investigation in each country. The volume of Latin American pieces sold to collectors in the major capitals of the world is even greater than the 4 thousand 907 cultural objects that Interpol is now looking for as stolen throughout South America, Central America and Mexico.
This panorama -reconstructed with documents, databases and direct sources-sheds light on episodes that occurred throughout the American continent, and also highlights the route that links the countries with the greatest cultural heritage of the continent and the antiquarian market centers As a transit scale of stolen goods to some of the world's most important academic institutions and research centers.