Cultural Heritage Unprotected

August 15, 2008

LEÓN – On the afternoon of July 25, at around 3 p.m., 18-year-old Franco Flores walked into the Rubén Darío Museum in León, popped open the glass case holding the renowned poet’s saber, allegedly slipped it into the back of his shirt and walked out of the museum unnoticed. The security guard had been busy attending a group of tourists and didn’t notice the theft taking place.

The alleged thief – a former drug addict with an extensive criminal record – didn’t get far with the sword that was once used by Nicaragua’s national hero while serving as ambassador to Spain in 1908.

Within 72 hours, cops had raided the home of Flores’ neighbor outside of León and found the sword stashed away in a closet.

Though a nationwide police search for the sword and an attempt to track the suspect with fingerprints left behind on the glass case had failed to net the crook, a phone call to a local radio station eventually tipped off police about a suspect trying to sell the poet’s legendary sword in Sutiaba, an indigenous neighborhood outside of León.

Desperate to get the artifact off his hands, Flores had allegedly tried selling the sword for a mere 100 cordobas ($5), according to Miguel Martinez, curator of the RubénDaríoMuseum in León. Martinez estimates the sword would fetch tens of thousands of dollars in the private collectibles market.

“If it would have been a professional (thief), that sword wouldn’t have reappeared,” said Martinez, who has since put the sword in a more secure glass case along with Darío’s diplomatic uniform.

The theft was the biggest scandal surrounding the legacy of Nicaragua’s renowned poet since President Daniel Ortega drew wide criticism last year for giving Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez two prized handwritten Darío poems about Simon Bolivar.

Born in the small northern town of Metapa – which is now named Ciudad Darío in honor of its most famous son – Rubén Darío (1876-1916) is known in the literary world as the founder of modern Spanish poetry. Renowned for his most famous works “Azul” and “Prosas Profanas,” Darío died in León, where fans and tourists still visit his remains entombed inside the Cathedral.

León Police Chief Douglas Zeledón, who refers to Darío as “the poet who changed modern Spanish language,” says the theft of the sacred sword should come as a wakeup call in León, home to some of Central America’s best museums and Nicaragua’s most treasured cultural and historical patrimony “León is the cradle of Nicaraguan culture, home to some of its greatest intellectuals,” said-Zeledón. “Granada may be older but it doesn’t have the same cultural heritage.”

The ease with which a high school student swiped Darío’s sword shows how vulnerable that cultural heritage is, much of which is stashed away in largely unprotected, crumbling buildings.

Rivaling arms trafficking as the third largest black-market trade after drug and human trafficking, antiquity smuggling grosses an estimated $2 billion a year, according to the British McDonald Institute for Archeological Research.

Previous Heists

The recent theft of the poet’s sword marked the first time that anything has been stolen from the Rubén Darío Museum in the 44 years since it opened, Martinez said. But it wasn’t the first time Nicaraguan artifacts – or even Darío artifacts – have disappeared.

In 2006, historians came back to work after Holy Week vacation to find Darío’s baptism documents missing from León’s Historical Diocesan Archives. The next month, five revolvers supposedly used against U.S. filibuster William Walker disappeared from the nearby San Jacinto museum.

The small uproar over the stolen guns faded when historians determined that the revolvers on display, which had allegedly been used in the epic battle against Walker, had been replicas in the first place.

Police, however, were unable to figure out who stole Darío’s baptism records, which would probably still be missing today had they not mysteriously reappeared a year later on the front steps of the historical archive in a plastic bag.

“The police never did a report on it,” said archive director Silvia Morales. She suspects the thieves entered through a hole in the archive wall that was covered up by a loose board. The hole has since been converted into a door, but other than a boxer that guards the archive at night, little else has been done to beef up the archive’s security.

Cat burglars could easily break in by removing the tiles on the colonial building’s roof and the police presence is negligible around the archive, which houses thousands of Catholic Church documents dating back to 1633.

Undervalued, Unprotected

“Unfortunately, the preservation of historical patrimony is not one of the strong points in Nicaraguan culture,” says Alberto Nickerson, a U.S. Fulbright scholar researching 19th century Nicaraguan history.

Because they are undervalued, historical artifacts often end up in private hands, limiting public access to them, he notes. “You’ll find valuable books or artifacts being sold for 50 córdobas (less than $3) or thrown away. I met a researcher who told me that the municipal archives of Jinotepe were being used as toilet paper and I have no reason to believe that this was sarcasm or hyperbole,” Nickerson said.

He said he found it “shocking” that an artifact as significant as Darío’s sword could  for a mere 100 cordobas ($5), according to Miguel Martinez, curator of the Rubén Darío Museum in León. Martinez estimates the sword would fetch tens of thousands of dollars in the private collectibles market.

“If it would have been a professional (thief), that sword wouldn’t have reappeared,” said Martinez, who has since put the sword in a more secure glass case along with Darío’s diplomatic uniform.

The theft was the biggest scandal surrounding the legacy of Nicaragua’s renowned poet since President Daniel Ortega drew wide criticism last year for giving Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez two prized handwritten Darío poems about Simon Bolivar.

Born in the small northern town of Metapa – which is now named Ciudad Darío in honor of its most famous son – Rubén Darío (1876-1916) is known in the literary world as the founder of modern Spanish poetry.

Renowned for his most famous works “Azul” and “Prosas Profanas,” Darío died in León, where fans and tourists still visit his remains entombed inside the Cathedral.

León Police Chief Douglas Zeledón, who refers to Darío as “the poet who changed modern Spanish language,” says the theft of the sacred sword should come as a wakeup call in León, home to some of Central America’s best museums and Nicaragua’s most treasured cultural and historical patrimony “León is the cradle of Nicaraguan culture, home to some of its greatest intellectuals,” said-Zeledón. “Granada may be older but it doesn’t have the same cultural heritage.”

The ease with which a high school student swiped Darío’s sword shows how vulnerable that cultural heritage is, much of which is stashed away in largely unprotected, crumbling buildings.

Rivaling arms trafficking as the third largest black-market trade after drug and human trafficking, antiquity smuggling grosses an estimated $2 billion a year, according to the British McDonald Institute for Archeological Research.

Previous Heists The recent theft of the poet’s sword marked the first time that anything has been stolen from the Rubén Darío Museum in the 44 years since it opened, Martinez said. But it wasn’t the first time Nicaraguan artifacts – or even Darío artifacts – have disappeared.

In 2006, historians came back to work after Holy Week vacation to find Darío’s baptism documents missing from León’s Historical Diocesan Archives. The next month, five revolvers supposedly used against U.S. filibuster William Walker disappeared from the nearby San Jacinto museum.

The small uproar over the stolen guns faded when historians determined that the revolvers on display, which had allegedly been used in the epic battle against Walker, had been replicas in the first place.

Police, however, were unable to figure out who stole Darío’s baptism records, which would probably still be missing today had they not mysteriously reappeared a year later on the front steps of the historical archive in a plastic bag.

“The police never did a report on it,” said archive director Silvia Morales. She suspects the thieves entered through a hole in the archive wall that was covered up by a loose board. The hole has since been converted into a door, but other than a boxer that guards the archive at night, little else has been done to beef up the archive’s security.

Cat burglars could easily break in by removing the tiles on the colonial building’s roof and the police presence is negligible around the archive, which houses thousands of Catholic Church documents dating back to 1633.

Undervalued, Unprotected “Unfortunately, the preservation of historical patrimony is not one of the strong points in Nicaraguan culture,” says Alberto Nickerson, a U.S. Fulbright scholar researching 19th century Nicaraguan history.

Because they are undervalued, historical artifacts often end up in private hands, limiting public access to them, he notes.

“You’ll find valuable books or artifacts being sold for 50 córdobas (less than $3) or thrown away. I met a researcher who told me that the municipal archives of Jinotepe were being used as toilet paper and I have no reason to believe that this was sarcasm or hyperbole,” Nickerson said.

He said he found it “shocking” that an artifact as significant as Darío’s sword could be swiped by “some hood.”

Police Chief Zeledón, a former Sandinista guerrilla who entered the rebel ranks to fight against dictator Anastasio Somoza at age 16, said his 500 police officers already have their hands full. León’s 26 tourism police aren’t enough to protect its 16 colonial-era churches and five museums, he said.

“We need to double that, and we need vehicles, motorcycles, bikes,” said Zeledón, 46. Since the sword was stolen, Zeledón has assigned one police officer to stand guard along with a tourist cop at the Darío museum.

“The museum has few personnel, and doesn’t have a good security system,” Zeledón said.

The security at public museums pale in comparison to the privately-owned Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz Gurdian, a couple blocks from the Darío museum. On a recent afternoon, there were more guards than visitors keeping a close eye on original paintings of Pablo Picassos, Diego Rivera and Juan Miro.

For public institutions to have that kind of security requires investment, but the Darío museum’s $50,000 annual budget goes mostly into maintaining the crumbling building, Martinez said. The budget-strapped Culture and Tourism ministries haven’t offered any funds for security, Zeledón said.

Martinez hopes the museum can bank off the short-lived uproar caused by the botched sword theft – which newspapers across the globe headlined as “Nicaraguan Poet’s Sword Mightier Than Pen.”

The National Autonomous University in León, which helps fund the museum and also hopes to fund a new León city museum, requested financial support from the presidency to purchase security cameras, according to Martinez.

For Zeledón, the sword swindler must get a tough sentence to send a message. Police requested prosecutors give Franco five to 12 years in prison for charges of theft and damage to cultural patrimony.

For Nickerson, the Fulbright scholar, change will come only when people learn to respect their heritage.

“People certainly know of the intrinsic value of documents and artifacts, which is why they are stolen,” he told The Nica Times in an e-mail. “The problem is that the people who know their value have little respect for them.”e swiped by “some hood.”

Police Chief Zeledón, a former Sandinista guerrilla who entered the rebel ranks to fight against dictator Anastasio Somoza at age 16, said his 500 police officers already have their hands full. León’s 26 tourism police aren’t enough to protect its 16 colonial-era churches and five museums, he said.

“We need to double that, and we need vehicles, motorcycles, bikes,” said Zeledón, 46. Since the sword was stolen, Zeledón has assigned one police officer to stand guard along with a tourist cop at the Darío museum. “The museum has few personnel, and doesn’t have a good security system,” Zeledón said.

The security at public museums pale in comparison to the privately-owned Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz Gurdian, a couple blocks from the Darío museum. On a recent afternoon, there were more guards than visitors keeping a close eye on original paintings of Pablo Picassos, Diego Rivera and Juan Miro.

For public institutions to have that kind of security requires investment, but the Darío museum’s $50,000 annual budget goes mostly into maintaining the crumbling building, Martinez said. The budget- strapped Culture and Tourism ministries haven’t offered any funds for security, Zeledón said.

Martinez hopes the museum can bank off the short-lived uproar caused by the botched sword theft – which newspapers across the globe headlined as “Nicaraguan Poet’s Sword Mightier Than Pen.”

The National Autonomous University in León, which helps fund the museum and also hopes to fund a new León city museum, requested financial support from the presidency to purchase security cameras, according to Martinez.

For Zeledón, the sword swindler must get a tough sentence to send a message. Police requested prosecutors give Franco five to 12 years in prison for charges of theft and damage to cultural patrimony.

For Nickerson, the Fulbright scholar, change will come only when people learn to respect their heritage.

“People certainly know of the intrinsic value of documents and artifacts, which is why they are stolen,” he told The Nica Times in an e-mail. “The problem is that the people who know their value have little respect for them.”

 

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