San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. museum to return indigenous artifacts

More than 4,500 pre-Columbian artifacts are awaiting transfer back to Costa Rica after being held in foreign collections since the late 19th century. The hook is that Costa Rica’s National Museum is short the cash to get them here.

The pieces have been housed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City since 1934, and as the museum undergoes a renovation of its collection, the Costa Rican ceramic pots, stone sculptures and figurines need a new home.

“In the past, the emphasis of the museum has been in collecting as many pieces as possible,” said Nancy Rosoff, the Brooklyn Museum’s Americas curator. She said the museum’s mission shifted 10 years ago to reflect artistic traditions, and she has been tasked with streamlining the Americas collection.

“The vessels are beautiful, but there is a lot of redundancy,” Rosoff said, explaining that the museum will keep a few of the “exhibition quality” artifacts.


Homeless: New York’s Brooklyn Museum and Costa Rica’s National Museum are looking for help to return more than 4,500 pre-Columbian artifacts to Costa Rica.

Photos courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

The remaining pieces will be set aside until the National Museum has enough money to transport them here. The first shipment of 983 objects could cost $59,000.

“For us, it’s a wonderful solution to see the pieces go back to their homeland,” Rosoff told The Tico Times. “At first, we were looking for other museums in the U.S. that might be interested, because we were concerned about whether the National Museum could afford the transfer. But it makes sense for them to be going to Costa Rica.”

The pieces were shipped out of Costa Rica between 1871 and 1929 by railroad tycoon Minor C. Keith, who is known for his role in the construction and financing of the country’s former railroad to the Caribbean, and for helping to establish Costa Rica as a “banana republic.”

In 1934, five years after Keith’s death, the museum acquired the collection from Keith’s estate in Long Island. Since then, curators have periodically displayed selections, but have kept most of it in storage.

“Obviously, the museum is interested in acquiring these pieces for their historic and scientific value,” said National Museum Director Sandra Quirós. “We’re looking to collaborate with an airline or [secure] a donation to bring them down.”

The National Museum has recently undertaken an international campaign to repatriate lost heritage. Under a 1982 law, all pre-Columbian artifacts found in Costa Rica are property of the state. The exception includes pieces that were acquired before 1938 and that have remained in the same hands since, such as the Keith collection (TT, Sept. 9, 2010).

In the last year, police have raided homes in San Pedro and Heredia and petitioned foreign countries including Spain and the U.S. to return lost items. Twenty-eight pieces have since been returned from Italy, along with 24 items from the Costa Rican Embassy in Washington, D.C., and two from Madrid.

The Keith collection is being returned without pressure from Costa Rica. In fact, Rosoff said she had tried to get in touch with National Museum directors years ago and never received a response. She tried a second time in March, after which the National Museum indicated its interest.

Rosoff said she is optimistic that Costa Rica will eventually find the money to transfer the artifacts.

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