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 CNS Story:

STOLEN ART Mar-10-2006 (1,220 words) With photos. xxxi

Organized corruption: Stolen religious art is international trade

By Barbara J. Fraser
Catholic News Service

LIMA, Peru (CNS) -- In an airy workshop on a top floor of Lima's Museum of the Nation, art restoration experts touch up plump cherubs on a 450-year-old bas-relief altarpiece.

The workshop is the next to last stop on an odyssey that has seen the masterpiece smuggled out of a tiny chapel in the southern highlands of Peru and into the United States, where it was seized from an art dealer in Santa Fe, N.M.

Once some minor damage is repaired, the 12-foot-high altarpiece will be displayed briefly at the museum before being returned to the chapel in Challapampa, in the prelature of Juli in the southern highlands known as the Altiplano.

The Challapampa case is part of a thriving international trade in stolen art works, particularly colonial religious art from the Andean countries of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Few pieces are ever recovered, and the countries are losing valuable cultural and religious heritage, including pieces that have never been documented, said Maria Elena Cordoba, administrative manager of Peru's National Institute of Culture.

"The trafficking is a major problem, not just in Peru but in all the countries," Cordoba said. "There's a large market (that is) economically powerful."

The value of the lost art is impossible to estimate, partly because most of the works are priceless and irreplaceable and partly because no one knows the real scope of the problem.

"Peru has things it doesn't even know exist," Cordoba said.

Experts say that much of the trafficking is theft to order. Collectors in the U.S. and Europe, especially Italy, France and Spain, who are seeking particular pieces of art contact agents in Peru who may hire local people to steal the works.

The targets range from tiny pieces, such as the silver crown on a statue of Mary, to paintings or large pieces like the Challapampa bas-relief.

Historian Mariana Mould de Pease, who has served on the Peruvian bishops' Cultural Heritage Commission, recalled the theft of a mural painted on the wall of a church in the highland Diocese of Cuzco. The operation required a sophisticated, time-consuming transfer technique that had to have been done by an expert, she said.

Such cases highlight the complexity of the web of trafficking, in which buyers often purchase the silence and complicity of local residents or authorities along with the artwork.

"More than organized crime, I'd say it's organized corruption," Mould de Pease said.

The corruption reaches into high places. In 2000, authorities raided the home of a Peruvian cultural attache in La Paz, Bolivia, where they found more than 100 pieces of religious art, much of which had been stolen from Peru, Cordoba said.

Colonial religious art graces the walls of hotels in Cuzco and private homes in Peru and the United States, and many people do not regard owning such works -- which were almost certainly stolen from churches -- as a crime, said Mould de Pease.

The owners often justify their purchases by arguing that the works were deteriorating in poorly protected churches where no one cared for them.

"It's very prestigious to say, 'I saved it,'" Mould de Pease said. "Nevertheless, there are people who care for them, but they are poor people."

For the Spanish missionaries who arrived in Peru in the 1500s, art was a tool for evangelizing the indigenous people of the Andean highlands and Amazon rain forest. In Peru, a style known as the "Cusqueno School" arose from the work of the Italian Jesuit Brother Bernardo Bitti, who arrived in the country in 1575 and traveled throughout the southern highlands before returning to Lima, where he died in 1610.

At the time, the rural farming area that is now the prelature of Juli was the center of the Jesuit reductions near the shores of Lake Titicaca, on a high, stark plain more than two miles above sea level, where the missionaries brought indigenous people from the countryside to live in large complexes for security and to facilitate catechesis.

Challapampa is now a tiny, indigenous village of adobe houses just off the highway to Bolivia, but because it once had an important place in the reductions "it had a very special chapel with an unusual number of paintings for a village chapel," said Msgr. Robert Hoffmann Straus, a Maryknoll priest from Wisconsin who is acting administrator of the prelature.

Brother Bitti, who was strongly influenced by artists like El Greco, Rafael and Michelangelo, arrived in Juli around 1580. Because there is little wood at that altitude, he adapted local techniques. The raised figures of the archangels Gabriel and Michael on the Challapampa altarpiece and the cherubs floating overhead were molded from agave plant fibers combined with plaster and cloth.

Although the altarpiece, which was stolen in 2002 while the church was undergoing restoration, is soon to return home, the story's ending is not entirely happy. Over the years the chapel in Challapampa has been plundered of many other valuable artworks, including more than a dozen early colonial paintings of archangels; that art is now believed to be in Brazil.

The Andean highlands are dotted with remote villages with huge colonial churches and tiny chapels, which are -- or were -- filled with priceless colonial paintings, carvings, statues and altar vessels made of silver and gold. Protecting them is difficult, expensive and dangerous, said Msgr. Hoffmann. In several cases, thieves have murdered local residents hired as caretakers for the churches.

Experts agree that protecting Peru's religious artworks requires a multipronged approach. The National Institute of Culture has been training customs and Interpol agents to recognize colonial artworks and distinguish the real ones from reproductions. Its community education programs encourage people to appreciate and protect their religious and artistic heritage.

The institute also keeps a database of religious art objects, although Cordoba estimates that less than 5 percent have been photographed and cataloged. If stolen, pieces that are not in the database are virtually impossible to recover.

Many of the artworks found in the Peruvian diplomat's apartment in La Paz had been stolen from churches in Peru, Cordoba said, but because they were not in the database she could not prove their origin. One of the greatest disappointments of her career, she said, was "leaving in Bolivia various pieces that I was sure were Peruvian." In the end, only nine pieces were returned to Peru, Cordoba said.

Msgr. Hoffmann said alarm systems are one way of cutting down on theft, but they are often too expensive for rural parishes.

Mould de Pease urged the Peruvian bishops' conference to implement 2001 Vatican guidelines that cover the protection and exhibition of religious art. She also called for joint campaigns between the Catholic Church in countries that are destinations for smuggled artworks, such as the U.S., and source countries, like the Andean nations, to raise awareness about the importance of conserving Latin America's colonial religious art and discourage people from buying stolen goods.

Mould de Pease also suggested that U.S. and European Catholics, especially Hispanic immigrants, could help parishes in their homelands raise money to install security systems. With such efforts, she said, "we're not going to recover 100 percent, but we could recover some, and we could tell the story so that little by little they'll come back."


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