Spain returns 691 pre-Columbian artifacts seized in 2003 drug raid in Madrid

After 11 years, Colombia has regained nearly 700 artifacts stolen by a money launderer who worked for drug smugglers.
Miranda Spivack | 13 October 2014

After 11 years, Colombia has regained nearly 700 artifacts stolen by a money launderer who worked for drug smugglers.

“Recovering for our nation these 691 archaeological treasures has a value that is really difficult to put any price on,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín. “They are from many of our (indigenous) cultures, and getting them home took years.”

The Museum of Americas in Madrid, Spain handed them over to Colombian police in September after years of painstaking investigation to determine their original owners. Several of the pieces are from ancient communities in the northern Andes and date to as early as 1400 B.C., long before Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century. About 80 percent of the collection’s pieces are 12 inches tall or smaller, and the rest are larger pieces, such as urns, pots and vases. Some depict human faces, and others are molds with symbolic images that indigenous artists used to paint their bodies and to stamp pieces of cloth.

The rare trove is estimated to be worth at least $7 million (USD) total, according to art experts.

Spanish police raid led to artifacts

“Coordination, information sharing and treaties established between the governments of Colombia and Spain allowed the recovery of indigenous pieces,” said Edwin Hernández, a security analyst at the National University of Colombia (UNAL). “It is important that such cooperation be extended to other countries to stop the theft of the cultural heritage of nations by the organized crime syndicates.”

The repatriation of the artifacts to Colombia marks the end of an extended journey for the collection which began during a 2003 drug raid in Madrid, Spain.

There, in a house allegedly used by drug traffickers, 60 police officers arrested 29 Spanish and Colombian nationals – and seized more than 880 apparent artifacts. The raid was a part of Operation Florence, which targeted drug cartels and money launderers. After seizing the items, police handed them over to the Museum of Americas in Madrid, which protected them for more than ten years in a secure, climate-controlled environment.

Museum officials cataloged the pieces and began identifying them and their origins, a process that took years. By 2011, they had determined that about 142 of the artifacts were fakes, and more than 150 of the pieces probably belonged to Panamá, Perú, and Ecuador. The other 691 artifacts, they determined, belonged to Colombia.

That discovery launched a careful legal process to return the items to their rightful owners. Upon determining their origin, museum officials informed the Spanish police, who in turn notified the Colombian embassy. The Colombian government formally petitioned for the return of the artifacts in 2012. As Spanish judicial authorities considered the petition, an archaeologist from the Colombia Institute of Anthropology and History went to Spain to examine the artifacts. The archaeologist confirmed the findings of the Spanish museum officials.

In June, the Spanish High Court ruled that the artifacts belonged in Colombia and should be repatriated, which led to the return of the items in September.

“Today is a very special day for Colombia,” said Colombian ambassador to Spain Fernando Carrillo Flórez. “The arrival of nearly 700 artifacts to Colombia is one of the most important cultural events in recent history.”

The artifacts will go on display to the general public in Colombia in 2015.

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