A Museum Returns an Ancient Artifact…with Style

At a ceremony today in Washington, D.C., the History Museum repatriated to the country of Peru an artifact that came from a likely illegal archaeological dig in that country’s Sipan region in the late 1980s. There’s more on that artifact and its history here, but we thought the words spoken by museum Director Frances Levine at the ceremony bore sharing. In situations such as these, the parties can be contentious or they can be diplomatic. We’re proud of Dr. Levine for choosing the latter route.

Her comments:

Muchisimas gracias a todos por la oportunidad de estar aquí con ustedes en este día tan historico y importante.

As a museum director and an archaeologist by training, I am pleased to be part of this ceremony to return this magnificent Moche treasure to the people of Peru.

In New Mexico we understand the process and the importance of repatriation.  We too have seen artifacts taken long ago from our ancient archaeological sites and from Pueblo Indian communities returned to the cultures from which they came. And we are grateful for their return.

While the Moche monkey head was appreciated by thousands of visitors when it was on display in the Palace of the Governors, I believe it can more fully tell its story when it is placed in the context of the culture and environment where it was created.  I believe that this treasure has its own stories and legends to tell to the people of Peru, and that it too will be enjoyed by thousands of your citizens when it returns to Peru.

The piece was collected at a time when the world was just becoming aware of the reasons that such contexts matter. Its return symbolizes the commitment of New Mexico’s museums to the recognition of many people’s stories that have told over many centuries.

In the last few decades, museums have changed how they regard artifacts such as these. At one time, it was important to bring the world to our visitors, and so we collected from many parts of the world and assembled those artifacts into exhibitions that attempted to tell stories to people who might never travel to these often exotic places. Today, we are choosing to focus on the stories that took place in our own patria, and on our own tierra, and to do so, in part, with artifacts and the oral histories, las memorias, of our own patrimony.

Since the New Mexico History Museum opened in 2009, joining the Palace of the Governors, we’ve charted a place for ourselves on the international stage of museums. We worked closely with Spain to host the U.S. premiere of –El Hilo de la Memoria-The Threads of Memory exhibition in Santa Fe in 2010. We are working now with Mexico on a joint exhibition about santero artistic traditions that united the beliefs and cultures of our two countries. Perhaps, we will also find ourselves working with Peru to examine the colonial conditions of our shared histories, both colonies settled by pobladores who came to the New World from Spain.

Our museum is proud of its reputation for integrity, cultural sensitivity and cooperation, and with those qualities in mind our museum collections committees and the museums’ Board of Regents voted unanimously to repatriate this precious artifact. As we place this national treasure in your hands, we very much look forward to a future in which we will work toward even more opportunities for collaboration. Esperamos continuar trabjando juntos en el futuro.  Gracias.


History Museum to Return Peruvian Artifact on Thursday

The New Mexico History Museum is preparing to repatriate an archaeological artifact to Peru, a move that signals the museum’s commitment to cultural diplomacy on the international stage. The exchange of the artifact, a gold pendant from the Moché Period (100-800 AD), will take place on Thursday, Dec. 8, in Washington, D.C.

Assisting in the return is the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where the item has been on long-term loan.

“Museums have changed how they regard artifacts from prehistoric peoples,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the History Museum. “The New Mexico History Museum and Palace of the Governors has also changed in how it chooses which stories to present and preserve. Our focus today is on the stories that played out on this soil. Artifacts from South America can be better used to help museums in Peru tell the stories of their people.

“We want to be an international player on the museum stage. We worked closely with Spain to host the U.S. premiere of The Threads of Memory exhibition in Santa Fe last year. We are working now with Mexico on a joint exhibition about santeros. A reputation for integrity, cultural sensitivity and cooperation are critical to us and foremost in our considerations regarding this request.”

Peruvian officials first raised the question of repatriating the artifact in 1998, when it was included in the exhibition Art of Ancient America at the Palace of the Governors. Citing the National Stolen Property Act, the FBI seized the monkey head, along with two artifacts on loan to the museum over allegations that they had been looted from an archaeological site in Sipán region of Peru. At the time, museum officials said they would return it if evidence proved that was true. Ultimately, the US Attorney’s Office in New Mexico declined to prosecute because of conflicting accounts about the item’s provenance. In 2000, the artifacts were returned to the Palace. Art of Ancient America closed in 2008.

Peruvian Ambassador Luis Valdivieso revived the repatriation request in May 2011. The conflicts over its provenance were resolved by an investigation by the US Attorney’s Office in the District of Delaware, and the History Museum immediately began its process of due diligence. In October, the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents endorsed a recommendation to return the item.

“The Board of Regents never takes de-accessioning lightly,” said Karen Durkovich, president of the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents. “We gave the matter our serious consideration and came to the conclusion that it’s appropriate to work collaboratively with the Peruvian government.”

As described in the Art of Ancient America catalog, the artifact is a “large bead finely modeled in the form of a monkey’s head. Turquoise and shell eyes, lapis nose and open mouth with traces of turquoise on (the) tongue.” The pendant measures 1¾” high by 2¼” wide and has a ball tucked inside of it that rattles when moved.

The item was given to the Palace of the Governors in 1995 by John Bourne, a Santa Fe collector. At the time of the donation, museum officials cautioned Bourne that it could be subject to repatriation, and they agreed it would be returned if a substantive claim emerged.

When the most recent effort emerged, the History Museum worked closely with Bourne and with the Walters Art Museum, and all parties agreed with the decision to return it.  “I’m glad that the artifact was available for many New Mexicans to see during the time it was on display here,” Bourne said, “and I support the process of due diligence that has led to it returning to Peru.”

Charles M. Oberly, III, United States Attorney for the District of Delaware, said: “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.”