US returns looted Moche gold monkey to Peru

Moche gold monkey's head pendant, ca. 300 A.D.The New Mexico History Museum returned a gold pendant shaped like a monkey’s head from the pre-Columbian Moche culture (ca. 100-800 A.D.) to Peruvian embassy officials in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. The monkey is 1.75 inches high by 2.25 inches wide, with turquoise and shell eyes, a turquoise tongue, a lapis lazuli nose and a ball inside that makes the head rattle when you shake it. It’s a superb example of Moche workmanship, probably worn on a necklace by royalty or other august personages.

So superb, in fact, that Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva, who along with his wife Susana Meneses discovered the spectacular Moche Lord of Sipán tomb in 1987, thought it looked a little too familiar when he saw it on display at the Art of Ancient America exhibit in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe in 1998. The Sipán tomb, which Alva had discovered intact, was looted shortly after its discovery by brothers Juan, Samuel, Emilio, and Ernil Bernal. They dragged dozens of sacks full of gold from the tomb to their house, buried the loot in their backyard and then sold it all off to eager collectors who, as usual, asked no questions.

The monkey was purchased by collector John Bourne in the late 80s along with a number of other Moche artifacts for $120,000. He donated it to the New Mexico History Museum in 1995. He also loaned two Moche ear spools and a gold rattle for the 1998 exhibit, although he retained ownership of those items. Bourne denied that the monkey’s head (or the other pieces) came from Sipán. He claimed instead that it came from La Mina, another Moche archaeological site in north Peru which was looted in 1988. This is no rebuttal to the charge that Bourne bought stolen goods, of course, since even if it did come from La Mina its theft and export were just as illegal as they would have been had the artifact come from the more famous Sipán site. As a legal maneuver, however, it was damned effective because establishing which site an artifact was stolen from is a basic requirement of making the case in a court of law.

The Peruvian government officially requested that the artifact be repatriated since it had been looted from the Sipán archaeological site and exported against Peruvian law. Alva went directly to the FBI, which opened an investigation in September of 1998. Citing the National Stolen Property Act, the FBI seized the monkey, ear spools and rattle, but since experts disagreed on whether they had been stolen from Sipán (as Alva and Peru alleged) or from La Mina (as Bourne claimed), in 2000 the U.S. Attorney General’s office in Albuquerque declined to prosecute. The pieces went back to the museum where they remained on display until 2008 and then the loaned objects were returned to Bourne.

That’s where things stood until this Spring. In May of this year, Peru wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder asking the Department of Justice to look into the situation. In October, the Board of Regents of the Museum of New Mexico voted to return the monkey head to Peru.

Pet peeve time. U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly III made the following statement about the return of the gold monkey:

“This repatriation is the result of the joint efforts of this office, the FBI Art Crime Team, the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and the Museum of New Mexico. I commend all parties for their efforts in producing this positive outcome. In particular, I commend the Museum of New Mexico for its selfless and noble action in returning this invaluable artifact to Peru. Artifacts like this Moche monkey head represent the history not only of the source country, in this case Peru, but the history of all mankind. We hope that this repatriation will help repair at least some of the damage caused by the looting of Moche sites.”

What is with the legal authorities kissing the ass of museums and collectors who finally return the stolen goods they refused to cough up for decades? The Museum of New Mexico was not selfless and noble in returning this invaluable artifact they KNEW was stolen all along.


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Comment by LadyShea
2011-12-13 11:41:22

Having preciouses pried from your grasping, sticky fingers is the NEW noble and selfless.

Comment by livius drusus
2011-12-13 18:17:05

I hear white is the new black, too.

Comment by edahstip
2011-12-13 12:46:59

Tales of the Gold Monkey?

Comment by livius drusus
2011-12-13 18:16:19


Comment by Ghulam
2011-12-13 17:52:03

The corruption in American academia is epidemic, and the political dishonesty. I know a guy who shot Afghanistan and them printed the work with the notoriously difficult dye transfer process. The show was so successful that it traveled to 120 museums in the US and Canada, including the Smithsonian and the ROM, but as soon as the Americans and their underlings took over the country all the shows stopped. Why would American university galleries want to show photographs now that make Afghanistan look beautiful and its people dignified and gentle? The last time that he had a major show at a NY Gallery, OK Harris, the owner took out of the show the only photograph of a mosque. He said that it would insult and anger his neighbours to hang a photograph of a mosque in the gallery. During the years of his Afghan exhibits he stood before many a college audience and spoke of the need for Americans to come to understand and appreciate the world of Islam before they were railroaded into stupid wars over oil, and not once has he ever heard from someone in the audience at one of those talks or one of the curators. He sent an Afghan book text to two art historians in St. Louis who have some of his prints on the walls in their home and whose wedding he attended; they sat on those prints and that text for a year and never looked at the material. American academics have been reprehensibly complicit with this entire war against Islam.

Comment by bort
2011-12-14 07:49:56


I loved that show as a little bort. Even though I don’t remember too much from it. Also, I was going to make the same statement.

Comment by livius drusus
2011-12-16 02:10:32

Oh, and one more thing: you must find the gold monkey before the next full moon.

Comment by incaneto
2012-01-20 11:57:08

about time!!!!, as usual americans stealing from the poor….i wonder what is the ulterior motive for these breed of pirates to do such?….what are they planing to take and manipulate now for free?

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