US returns Pre-Columbian artifacts to Ecuador
By LISA ORKIN EMMANUEL
NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — U.S. officials returned 168 pre-Columbian artifacts to Ecuador on Tuesday as part of an ongoing FBI initiative to repatriate stolen cultural treasures to their home countries.
The artifacts were recovered in Miami in 2006. They consist of pottery, baskets, jewelry, carvings, figurines and sculptures that predate Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.
“To recover art is to recover history,” said Juan Carlos Toledo, Consul General of Ecuadorean Consulate in Miami.
Toledo made the comments during a ceremony in North Miami Beach. The artifacts will be packed and flown to Ecuador, where they will go on display at museums in that South American country after a welcoming ceremony.
Experts said the artifacts range from 2,000 to 5,000 years old.
Some of the oldest pieces are from South American’s Valdivia Culture dating to 4000 B.C. Those include small ceramic and shell figurines, once rubbed on the body part of an ailing person and then broken in half in the belief that they released evil spirits, said Amanda Moran, an FBI supervisory special agent.
Moran, the agent on the case, said some of the artifacts were also used as offerings to gods.
Among the objects returned are a lion with a snake in its mouth from the Jama Coaque Culture, which dates to between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. The most recent piece is a figurine that dates to the Mantera Culture, between 700 A.D. and 1531 A.D.
The pieces were seized in 2006 after a Miami-based broker sent an e-mail to the International Council of Museums in Paris, France, soliciting a buyer for a total of more than 600 pieces, authorities said. The pieces being returned were found in Miami. Another 583 were found in Ecuador.
Jonathan I. Solomon, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Miami field office, said the items were being offered for sale for $5 million before they were seized.
“The whole collection was for sale,” he said.
He said the undercover FBI investigation culminated with the seizure of the items in July 2006.
Cecilia Marillo-Aviles from Ecuador pleaded guilty to a smuggling charge in 2006 and was sentenced to time served, which was one day in jail, Moran said.
Moran said the woman told her that she and her ex-husband had been taking objects over the course of 40 years. The ex-husband was never charged. The objects were found in her house as part of an undercover operation where FBI agents acted as potential buyers.
She had to forfeit the objects and is under investigation in Ecuador, Moran added.
Two other people, including the broker were arrested, but never charged, she said.
Jose Chancay, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Ecuador’s Cultural Assets, said it is impossible to put a price on the objects.
U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the pieces are national treasures and can never be replaced.
“This was a fine example of cooperation. It is exactly the way cases should proceed,” he said.
U.S Ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges, said the whole process of finding the artifacts required a great deal of cooperation.
“My thought here is that this is a fine example of the friendship and the cooperation that we enjoy between the United States and Ecuador,” she said. “I think that this is very important day for us.”
The FBI’s Rapid Deployment Art Crime Team, which was established in 2004, has recovered over $134 million in cultural property.