Archive for the ‘Looting’ Category

Brazenly looted Maya frieze restored

Saturday, June 11th, 2022

A monumental stucco frieze looted from the Late Classic Maya site of Los Placeres in the jungles of Campeche is the final stage of a four-year restoration that aims to return it to the condition it was in before it was plundered.

Made between 450 and 600 A.D., the frieze features a central mask representing a youthful ruler guarded on each side by two deified elderly men, likely representing ancestors, extending to the ruler power and virility. It was vividly painted and much of the polychrome paint remained when it was looted in 1968.

The removal of the Placeres Frieze was one of the most brazen looting and trafficking operations of all time, if not the most. It all started with an art dealer in New York City. A former US Air Force pilot during World War II, the dealer heard about the façade hidden in the jungle and organized a team to loot it. His man on the ground was Lee Moore, an orchid collector who had traveled extensively through Central America pursuing his obsession.

But smuggling a stucco frieze more than 27 feet long and eight feet high that has been attached to a temple for 1500 years is far more complex than smuggling a rare plant. You can’t just hike through the jungle with it in your backpack. For this job, the looters had to clear a stretch of jungle and create an airstrip out of it to even make it possible to transport the massive frieze out of the country.

A looting crew was deployed to the Placeres archaeological site, then completely overtaken by jungle growth. They cleared the façade of plant matter, coated it in Mowilith, a polymer plaster, to keep the surface from disintegrating, then sawed it off the temple with wood saws. We know all of this because the entire operation was photographed in detail. That’s right. They meticulously documented their illegal destruction and theft of an ancient archaeological site.

The looters cut the frieze into 48 pieces and loaded onto a plane bound for Miami. Its eventual destination was New York City where it would be offered for sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was then preparing a major exhibition of pre-Hispanic art. The price tag was $400,000.

The Met wanted to sleep on the idea for a while, so the façade was stored in the basement until the end of 1968 when one of the museum’s curators rejected the offer in horror at the Elgin-like brutality of the frieze’s theft. He contacted the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico and together they planned a sting to catch the dealer. In a direct confrontation, the directors of both museums demanded the frieze be returned to Mexico. The trafficker still tried to get out of it and here too the brazenness is just off the charts. He actually dared to ask they at least pay him $80,000 to reimburse him for the expenses he incurred building an airfield, brutalizing an ancient monument and illegally removing it from the country. They laughed in his face, of course, and finally he gave up. The frieze was returned to Mexico. Neither the dealer, the orchid collector nor any of the demolition crew were ever punished.

The frieze has been in the National Museum of Anthropology ever since. In 2018, conservators embarked on a comprehensive restoration of the frieze with the goal of returning it to the weathered but still richly colored condition it was in before it was outraged. Over the years it has developed an overall reddish tone and salts have accumulated marring the surface. Experts identified the pigments in the polychrome paint: iron oxides for the reds, carbon black for the pupils, white lime for other details. This information helped conservators target the unwanted elements for removal without damaging the original pigment.

The next phase of restoration aimed to stabilize the frieze which was still mounted to the metal framework that was crafted to support it when it was repatriated in 1969.

“Based on three-dimensional and volumetric calculations, we welded a new structure that supports each fragment with at least four supports”, so that the two tons that the relief weighs rest on a stable frame.

One advantage of the new structure is its mobile character, which will facilitate the maintenance of the piece and will promote the temporary rearrangement of the whole for museum installations.

Already stable, the piece underwent comprehensive cleaning, which required two years of work, between 2020 and 2021, to fully remove the polymer using products created at the CNCPC. 

The conservation is being done in full public view in the museum’s Mayan Room. It is expected to be complete by December,

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Globetrotting Mycenaean gold ring returns home

Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

A Mycenaean-era gold signet ring has been returned to Greece by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, eight decades after it was stolen.

Mycenaean gold signet ring, 3rd millennium B.C. Photo courtesy the Hellenic Ministry of Culture & Sports.

The ring depicts two sphinxes facing each other, tails raised and wings outstretched. It dates to the 3rd millennium B.C. and was found in the grave of a local nobleman in the Mycenaean necropolis in Ialysos, Rhodes, in 1927. At that time, Rhodes was occupied by Italy, an occupation that began before the First World War and only formally ended after the Second (1912-1947;  although technically it was a British protectorate for the last two of those years). Italian military authorities directed a program of systematic excavations of numerous ancient sites, including the necropolis. The ring was one of the grave goods recovered from the richly-furnished Tomb 61.

Along with thousands of other artifacts excavated during the Italian occupation, the ring was kept in the collection of the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes. Sometime during World War II, the ring was stolen and disappeared into the penumbra of the private antiquities market. We now know it made its way to the United States in the 1950s or 60s when it was acquired by Hungarian biophysicist Georg von Békésy, winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Békésy died in 1972, leaving his extensive connection of arts and antiquities to the Nobel Foundation. The Foundation spread the works around to various museums in Sweden. The Mycenaean ring went to the Museum of Mediterranean and Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm.

The ring’s exceptional quality did not go unnoticed. The museum’s director, archaeologist Carl Gustaf Styrenius, recognized the signet ring as one of the treasures of Ialysos and notified the Greek authorities, but for unknown reasons, the rediscovery of the ring slipped through the cracks of Greek bureaucracy into the memory hole.

After so clumsily dropping the ball, Greece was fortunate enough to get a second chance at bat 45 years later. In recent years, the Ministry of Culture has initiated a project to investigate antiquities lost during the Second World War. This time, records of the gold ring were found in the archives and authorities confirmed the Mycenaean signet ring in Stockholm was indeed the one that had disappeared from the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes. The ministry then initiated a formal ownership claim.

In close cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Sports, the Greek Embassy in Stockholm undertook negotiations with the Museum of Mediterranean and Eastern Antiquities and the Nobel Foundation. The two Swedish institutions welcomed the Greek request from the beginning and willingly provided archival material, as well as any facility for the progress of the negotiations. In this context, the ring was examined by experts from the National Archaeological Museum, who went to Stockholm for this purpose, and its identification with the robbery of Rhodes was confirmed, paving the way for his repatriation.

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Looted Viking hoard returns to Herefordshire

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

A Viking hoard illegally recovered and hidden from the authorities by unscrupulous metal detectorists will, after a seven year saga, finally go on display in the county where it was stolen.

George Powell and Layton Davies discovered the hoard in a field in Eye, near Leominster, Herefordshire, in 2015. It was a sensational find, containing about 300 coins, Anglo-Saxon jewelry, Frankish jewelry and silver ingots, but it was never reported. Powell and Davies were ill-intentioned from the beginning, neglecting to get permission from the landowner to scan the field and opting to sell an archaeological treasure of inestimable historic value on the black market for quick cash instead of reporting them to the Finds Liaison officer as required by the 1996 Treasure Act.

They did have the clever idea to post photos of some of the coins in situ to a metal detecting forum, however, and those photos ultimately resulted in their capture and conviction for theft and concealment in 2019. Powell was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Layton to eight-and-a-half. A coin-seller who had fenced the extremely rare coins was convicted of conspiracy to conceal criminal property and conspiracy to convert criminal property and sentenced to five years. A fourth accomplice was also convicted of concealment and sentenced to a year in prison.

Unfortunately, only 29 of the coins could be found of the original 300 or so in the hoard, (an estimate based on pictures taken at the find site by the thieves). Authorities also believe many more ingots were originally part of the hoard before they were illegally sold. The coins that remain are of enormous archaeological significance, even re-writing the history of England and upending what we thought we knew about West Mercia in the 9th century.

There are a number of exceedingly rare “Two-Emperor” pennies minted by both Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia, likely to commemorate an alliance. Only three examples of this type of coin were known before the Herefordshire Hoard, and because of the tiny sample size historians didn’t know if this was a substantial coinage or just a scattershot few. The only references to Ceolwulf on the historical record were written by Alfred’s chroniclers. The Mercian king is dismissed as a weak Viking puppet.

The hoard proves the coins were produced in large quantities and identify Ceolwulf II as a far more important ruler than previous realized, on an equal footing with Alfred the Great in their time. Before this find, all historians had to go on was Alfred’s presentation of Ceolwulf II who had their alliance erased from history after he took Ceolwulf’s kingdom. The hoard is also the first evidence of likely activity of the Viking Great Army in Western Mercia in 877-9.

The Herefordshire Hoard is still in the British Museum while non-profit groups work to raise the valuation sum to bring the hoard home pernamently. Meanwhile, the hoard will travel to the Hereford Museum Resource and Learning Centre (MRLC) where it will be on display from May 28th through July 9th. The museum has until the end of July to raise the funds to acquire it. To donate to the fundraiser, click here.

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1st ancient solid marble bathtub found in Turkey confiscated from smugglers

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

A Roman-era marble bathtub from the 3rd century was confiscated by police in Karacasu, western Turkey just as it was about to be sold by smugglers. This is the only solid marble bathtub ever discovered in Turkey.

The basin is 5’11” long and weighs one ton, so by no means a portable antiquity. It is decorated with two bas relief lion’s heads holding rings in their jaws, a popular motif on bath and fountain basins as well as tub-shaped sarcophagi. (Or as waterspouts on temple eaves. Or as pulls on furniture.)

The find site is unknown, but experts believe the tub was locally produced in the ancient city of Aphrodisias. Now within the municipal boundaries of Karacasu, Aphrodisias was the largest and richest urban center in the region at the time when the bathtub was made. It was also home to a major sculpture workshop, and the quality of marble and of the carving in the lion heads suggest it was produced there.

A basin of this size with high-end carving was likely used in the private home of a wealthy individual. Public baths also used tubs, either because the bathing facility was too small to have a hypocaust heating system which was very expensive to install and operate, or to hold cold water for people to dip into quickly when closing their pores in the frigidarium.

Provincial Culture and Tourism Director Umut Tuncer examined the bathtub and emphasized that the ancient city of Aphrodisias is a very special area, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. […]

Tuncer said that the tub would be restored and displayed at the museum. “We believe that it will attract the attention of art lovers. There is a bath structure in all of our ancient cities. These places were actually used as public and social spaces.

The culture of hot water, bathing and cleaning was an important part of the period. We have seen everything we expected to see in this tub. […] The richest ancient city of the region is Aphrodisias. The city also had a large sculptor school. We can see the curves that reflect the facial expressions, muscles and mimics in the sculptures in the Aphrodisias Museum,” he said.

The ruins of Aphrodisias have long been a target for looters. Gendarmerie teams are constantly patrolling for illegal excavations, using drones with motion-sensitive thermal cameras to scan the ancient city for suspicious treasure-hunting activity.

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18th c. gold box recovered 19 years after manor raid

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

An 18th century gold box stolen from the Rothschild estate of Waddesdon Manor 19 years ago has been recovered. The box was one of more than 100 stolen by a gang of masked men in blue boilersuits in the wee hours of June 10th, 2003. They broke a window and raided the Rothschild collection of small boxes, rings, bottles and watches, stealing millions of dollars worth of highly portable precious objects in less than four minutes.

The manor had excellent security and the thieves were so precise in targeting the high-value pieces that police believe they were professionals working on commission. They disappeared without a trace and the police investigation went nowhere. Only a handful of the looted objects have been found in the two decades since the theft.

Last August, one of the stolen gold boxes resurfaced at a small regional auction. The auction house contacted the Art Loss Register (ALR), an international database of stolen art, as part of their due diligence process and ALR experts flagged it as one of the boxes taken in the Waddesdon raid. Staff at Waddesdon confirmed the identification.

The gold box that has surfaced is a French bonbonniere dated 1775-1781 and made in Paris, a centre for the production of gold boxes in the 18th century. These small circular boxes were personal accessories, kept in a pocket, in a boudoir or salon, and used for sweets. Often embellished with painted or enamelled scenes, this one has a miniature of an unknown woman holding a basket of roses on its lid. It is decorated with gold piqué (inlaid) stars on a dark blue ground and has a tortoiseshell interior. […]

The box has now been returned to Waddesdon and will go on display from 27 April in the Rothschild Treasury, a gallery that houses more than 300 objects made from rare and precious materials that celebrates the Rothschild family as collectors of extraordinary objects.

This is serendipitous timing for this particular gold box to return home to Waddesdon, as it was acquired by Alice de Rothschild (1847-1922). Alice was the sister of Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898), who built Waddesdon, and she inherited the Manor and its contents from him. This spring Waddesdon is marking the centenary of her death by celebrating her life, collections and legacy with Alice’s Wonderlands – a comprehensive programme of exhibitions and displays that highlight her pivotal role in Waddesdon’s history.

Pippa Shirley, Director of Collections, Historic properties and Landscapes at Waddesdon says “I am absolutely delighted that this box has returned, and very grateful to the Art Loss Register for its part in its successful recovery. The 2003 theft was deeply traumatic for everyone at Waddesdon – I remember it vividly – and this feels such a positive outcome and gives us hope that the other boxes may yet come back to us. It is also such a happy coincidence that it should reappear in the year in which we are celebrating Alice de Rothschild and her extraordinary contribution to the collections here.”

The bonbonnière will be in the most august of company in the Rothschild Treasury gallery. It goes on display next gifts of jewelry from Queen Victoria, gold tableware, a Boucheron diamond and pearl tiara, and a carved amber casket from 1660 the glows like fire in the light and is believed to have been purchased by the founder of the Rothschild dynasty, banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812). There’s also a literal august object: a cameo portrait of Augustus Caesar’s grandson Gaius.

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Update: stolen Darwin notebooks returned in hot pink gift bag

Wednesday, April 6th, 2022

Two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks stolen decades ago from the Cambridge University Library, have been returned anonymously, left on the floor outside the Librarian’s office in a hot pink gift bag. Inside the gift bag was the blue archive box custom-made to contain the notebooks. Both notebooks were inside the box, snugly wrapped together in plastic wrap. Also inside the bag was a brown envelope with the printed note:

Librarian

Happy Easter

X

The two notebooks have been carefully examined and are in excellent condition, thankfully. There are no missing or damaged pages.  

The notebooks were last seen in the fall of 2000 when they were removed from Cambridge’s Special Collections Strong Rooms to be photographed in high-resolution for the library’s digital collection. If they were returned, there’s no record of it and a routine check in January of 2001 discovered that the notebooks and the custom blue box that contained them were not back in their previous location. Despite the inestimable historical value of the notebooks, one of which contains the Darwin’s 1837 Tree of Life drawing which has become an iconic image in the history of science, this did not immediately trigger a massive search. The Darwin archives in the Cambridge University Library are enormous, by far the largest collection of Darwiniana in the world, so the staff figured they’d just been misplaced and would be found sooner or later.

Limited searches over the years turned up nothing, and in 2020 the library launched a comprehensive targeted search of the archives and storerooms. That process was expected to take years, but in the interim, the university officially reported the missing patrimony as theft to local and international authorities and launched a public appeal for the recovery of the missing notebooks.

The appeal made the news around the world, and obviously it worked because somebody’s small conscience grew three sizes that day and the notebooks are back where they belong. This time they should stay put, at least if Cambridge University Librarian Dr. Jessica Gardner has anything to say about it:

“The building has transformed significantly since the notebooks were first reported as missing. In the last 20 years this has included completion of new high security strong rooms, new specialist reading rooms and a range of additional security measures.

These include CCTV, card-and-pin access to secure areas, a dedicated Security Team onsite and further root-and-branch reviews of all our security protocols to come – to make sure we minimise any future risk as far as humanly possible.”

Police are continuing to investigate the theft and now the return of the notebooks. The prodigal notebooks will go on public display this summer in Darwin in Conversation, a Cambridge University Library exhibition dedicated to Darwin’s extensive correspondence of 15,000 letters written over a lifetime.

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Renaissance shield looted by Nazis returned to Czech Republic

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has agreed to return a 16th century shield that was looted by Nazis during World War II to the Czech Republic. The pageant shield, elaborately decorated with a scene of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus capturing what is now Cartagena in southern Spain during the Second Punic War, was created by  Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso around 1535 out of wood, linen, gesso, gold and pigment. It was part of the collection of Konopiště Castle in Benešov, about 25 miles southeast of Prague, that was stripped bare during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It will now go back on display in the castle 80 years after it was stolen.

The complex battle scene of the Roman army assaulting the rounded crenelated towers of the city was based on a tapestry from a series depicting scenes from the life of Scipio designed by Giulio Romano for King Francis I of France. Romano drew the cartoons for the tapestries in 1531-1533. The tapestries were then woven in Brussels and sent to the king in 1535. They fell victim to the French Revolution’s orgy of anti-monarchical iconoclasm in 1797, destroyed to harvest the gold and silver threads used in the weaving. Copies of the Scipio tapestries commissioned by Louis XIV in 1688 survived the Revolution and are now in the Louvre.

(Wee digression: Cartagena was founded by Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s younger brother, in 228 B.C. at the site of an earlier Iberian settlement. The Punic name for Carthage was Qart Hadasht, meaning New City, because it was founded by Phoenician colonists from Tyre (the old city). Hasdrubal named his foothold in Spain Qart Hadasht too. It was Scipio Africanus who renamed it Carthago Nova after his conquest of it in 209 B.C. to differentiate it from the original, so he basically copyedited Hasdrubal, correcting New City into the more precise New New City.)

Twenty-four inches in diameter, the round shield was made for ceremonial purposes, and the subject matter may have been chosen in homage to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who in 1535 captured Tunis, née Carthage, from the Ottoman Empire. Charles V’s victory over the Ottoman corsairs was analogized to Scipio’s defeat of Carthage, and upon his return, the Emperor was feted all over Italy.

The shield was not presented to Charles V. It stayed in Italy for more than three centuries. In the 1700s it was in the Castello del Catajo outside Padua, part of the vast collection of arms and armature amassed by the marquess Tommaso degli Obizzi. He was the last to hold the title, and he left his all of his family’s wealth and possessions to the House of Este. Those lands, estates and collections were absorbed into the Ducal House of Austria-Este, the fruit of a marriage between Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, and Maria Beatrice Este, last surviving heir of the Este family.

That wealth paid for Konopiště Castle. Originally built in the late 13th century, the castle was refashioned into a Baroque palace in the 1730s and 40s, but had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 19th century. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination in 1914 would set alight the powder keg that exploded into World War I, bought the castle in 1887 with money he inherited after the death of the last scion of the Austria-Este ducal house. That inheritance included the Obizzi-Este collection of arms and armature, the third largest collection of armory and medieval weapons in Europe.

The collection, including the da Treviso shield, was installed in Konopiště Castle in 1896 where it remained even after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire birthed Czechoslovakia. Then came the Second World War.

In 1939 the Nazi government annexed the part of Czechoslovakia where Konopiště was located, and in 1943 the German army (Wehrmacht) confiscated the Konopiště Castle armor collection, including the shield, and took it to Prague to be housed in a new military museum. However, Adolf Hitler’s arms and armor curator, Leopold Ruprecht, soon skimmed off the cream of the collection, inventoried it, and dispatched it to Vienna, intending the best for Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz, Austria. At the end of the war, large groups of Konopiště objects were recovered by the Allies and returned to Czech authorities in 1946, but among 15 objects that remained missing was a shield whose description was similar to the pageant shield.

Thirty years later, the pageant shield was bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by avid collector of medieval arms Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch. Its ownership history was threadbare and previous attempts to determine whether it was indeed the looted Konopiště Castle shield were inconclusive.

Since 2016, the museum has been collaborating with historians in the Czech Republic to evaluate the history and provenance of the Italian pageant shield. Recent research identified pre-WWII inventories which, in tandem with a photograph, dated to around 1913, showing the museum’s shield as displayed at Konopiště Castle provided by the museum, persuasively identify the shield as the one illegally taken from Konopiště Castle by the Nazis and never restituted. Based on these revelations, the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art unanimously concluded that rightful title in the work belonged to the Czech Republic and approved the return of the armor at its meeting of June 17, 2021.

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Hero conservator busts huge loot collector

Monday, June 21st, 2021

The Italian Carabinieri Art Squad in collaboration with European authorities has confiscated almost 800 ancient southern Italian artifacts from the home of an unnamed wealthy collector in a town near Antwerp. The 782 archaeological objects were all illegally excavated from the region of Puglia. They date to between the 6th century B.C. and the 3rd century B.C. and are worth an estimated $13 million, if their immense archaeological value could ever be assessed in market terms.

This bust was the result of three years of investigation, and it all started thanks to an eagle-eyed conservator. In 2017, a conservator at the restoration laboratory for the Archaeological Superintendency of the Foggia area spotted a stele of the Daunian civilization published in the catalogue of a 1993 exhibition of ancient Italic art at the Rath Museum in Geneva. The stele was missing a central area. The incised design at the margins of the gap completed the design of a mounted warrior on a fragment of a stele in the Archaeological Museum of Trinitapoli.

The Daunian people inhabited the north of Apulia in the 1st millennium B.C., one of three tribes that grew from the union of Illyrian and Mycenean Greek settlers in the region. The Daunians assimilated less with the indigenous Italic peoples than the other two tribes and developed characteristic monuments and pottery unique to them. Of particular note are their funerary steles, made between the late 8th century B.C. and the 6th century B.C. and incised with elaborate decorations representing the deceased. No two are alike and they are very much peculiar to the Foggia-Barletta area that was the epicenter of Daunian culture.

So when the stele in the catalogue picture seemed to be an exact fit for a fragment in the museum, Italian authorities reached out to INTERPOL to find out who this Belgian owner was. His identity determined, the next step was securing a warrant to search his property and recover any other funerary artifacts looted from Apulian tombs.

The stele was found in his possession and it matched the fragment exactly, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Police confiscated an unprecedented quality of Apulian objects: red-figure, black-figure pottery and geometric pottery both Attic and local, Daunian steles, Greek terracotta figurines, clay heads, winged statuettes. Apulian works with anything like a legal ownership record are vanishingly rare and even the few in major institutions around the world can only be traced to the 1990s, so a full museum secreted in one guy’s house in Antwerp can only have been secured through years of dedicated traffic in looted archaeological objects. He didn’t just amass this number of high-quality Apulian artifacts in excellent condition by browsing flea markets and antique shops.

He, of course, contested the seizure of his looted antiquities, but all of his appeals have failed and the collection has now been transferred to Italy where archaeologists will study and document it thoroughly.

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Gold disc, symbol of Cusco, returned to Peru

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Echenique Disc repatriated to Peru. Photo courtesy the National Museum of the American IndianThe Smithsonian has agreed to repatriate a pre-Inca gold disc to Peru 119 years after its aquistion. The National Museum of the American Indian signed a memorandum of understanding with the Peruvian government for the return of the Echenique Disc, a gold disc whose design is the official symbol and shield of the city of Cusco. It was officially transferred to the Peruvian ambassador to the United States at his residence in Washington, D.C., on June 15th.

The object is a thin sheet of hammered gold about five inches in diameter. The alloy is relatively pure, composed of 90% gold, 5% silver and 5% copper, so just shy of 22 karats in modern classification. In the center is a fanged feline face with large rounded eyes and a snout-like nose, a design seen frequently in ancient Peruvian ornaments and pottery. It had a supernatural connotation — perhaps representing a deity — and indicated the high status of its owner. There are holes and slits cut into the sheet and it is believed to have been worn as a pectoral ornament.

The outer border is divided evenly into 20 sections that contain a variety of imagery including anthropomorphic figures, geometric shapes, crescent moons and other symbols. Their meaning has not been deciphered but may indicate the disc was a solar or lunar calendar. It is more than 2,000 years old, the most recent scholarship placing it between 800 B.C. and 1 A.D., and is a masterful example of ancient Andean goldsmithing.

As with so many cultural heritage artifacts that wound up far from their origins, the disc’s history is mysterious. It first emerged on the record in 1853 when it was given as a ceremonial gift along with several other ancient objects to then-Peruvian president José Rufino Echenique during an official visit to Cusco. Where it came from, who gave it to him, anything at all about its past before that point is unknown.

Things get murky again after that as the disc and other objects gifted to Echenique just sort of disappeared for a while. Julio Tello Rojas, father of Peruvian archaeology, tried to track them down in the 1920s and failed. He believed they had been sent to Chile and were destroyed in a fire in Santiago. He was wrong, at least in part, because in 1912 it was sold privately by Dr. Edward Gaffron, a German doctor who lived in Peru for decades and built an enormous collection of ancient Peruvian artifacts, to collector George Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian in New York which was later incorporated into the Smithsonian as the National Museum of the American Indian.

Gold ornamental plume or pin, ca. 200 B.C.–A.D. 400.  Photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.The Smithsonian’s provenance for the disc records that in fact it was inherited by one of Echenique’s daughters who then sold it to Gaffron, and there are at least two other artifacts in museums that are believed to have been part of the Echenique group. One is a gold ornamental plume or pin incised on both sides with a similar supernatural feline figure, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They don’t know its provenance either. Big blank before 1850 and between then and its acquisition from a German private collection in 1942. Interesting German connection there; maybe Dr. Gaffron got his hands on more of the Echenique treasure than the one disc we know about.

The choice of the disc as the official shield of Cusco was a pointed one. In 1986, the city council passed a law prohibiting the use of any post-Conquest Spanish colonialist imagery in Cusco’s coat of arms. Today replicas of it adorns the streets, fountains and buildings of Cusco’s historic center. The original is expected to be returned to Cusco for permanent display, and Cusco’s mayor Victor Boluarte is hoping to coordinate with Peru’s Culture Ministry for its return by June 24th, the day of the Inti Raymi celebration, the Festival of the Sun, an ancient Inca ritual which is the culmination of the Jubilee month celebrating the heritage of the imperial city.

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Looted temple lintels repatriated to Thailand

Thursday, May 27th, 2021

Two hand-carved lintels have been returned to Thailand 50 years after they were stolen from ancient temples and smuggled out of the country. They were officially handed over to officials from the Royal Thai Consulate in a ceremony that included traditional Thai dancers and prayers at Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The 1,500-pound sandstone lintels were carved in the pre-Angkorean Baphuon style in the 9th-10th century when Thailand was part of the Khmer Empire. They were stolen from the Nong Hong Temple and the Khao Lon Temple in northeastern Thailand in the 1960s. The last time the Nong Hong lintel was documented in its original location was 1959. The Khao Lon lintel was in place until at least 1967. Avery Brundage, then President of the International Olympic Committee and an insatiable collector of Asian art, bought the former from a London auction house in 1966 and the latter from a gallery in Paris in 1968.

Brundage donated some of his enormous collection to the city of San Francisco and the Asian Art Museum was built to house it in 1966. He bequeathed the rest of his collection to his museum after his death in 1975. Today the museum has 7,700 Brundage pieces in its 17,000 piece collection. The problem is Brundage, a notorious anti-Semite and racist, gave not a single rat’s ass about the ownership histories of any of the loot in his collection, so now the museum is paying the price for Brundage’s cavalier covetousness.

The worm turned on the lintels in 2016. A picture of one of the lintels caught the eye of a Thai non-profit cultural heritage organization and in September of that year, Consul General of the Royal Thai Consulate in Los Angeles visited in person. He told museum curators that the lintels had been stolen and Thailand wanted them back. The museum ghosted him and other Thai officials until the Department of Justice opened an investigation in 2017.

After a long and thorough investigation, the US Attorney’s filed an asset forfeiture complaint against the City of San Francisco in October, 2020. It detailed the evidence that the lintels had been stolen, including correspondence between Brundage and both the London and Paris galleries concerning archaeological evidence that the lintels had been looted and appeals from Thai officials for their return.

The museum’s argument was that there was no explicit proof that the lintels were stolen, but temples do not willingly sell pieces of themselves, especially structural features carved with scenes of religious import, and Thai laws going back to 1935 prohibit the export of protected cultural artifacts except under extremely limited circumstances which require a license. They also claim the letters between Brundage and his loot suppliers were talking about a third piece which Brundage returned to Thailand in 1970. Those dogs didn’t hunt, as the saying goes, and in February 2021 the parties settled the case with the museum agreeing to consent to the forfeiture.

The lintels are scheduled to arrive in Thailand on Friday. After an initial examination by experts from the Thai Fine Arts Department, the carved stones will go on display at the Bangkok National Museum for three months.

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