Police seize $1 million collection of pre-Columbian art in Santa Ana

October 27, 2014

Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) raided the Santa Ana home of a German man on Oct. 22, seizing a large collection of unregistered pre-Columbian art worth as much as $1 million.

Possession of pre-Columbian art is publishable with three to five years in prison under Costa Rican law. According to a statement from the OIJ, the owner of the collection was not arrested. The Prosecutor’s Office did not respond to The Tico Times’ request for comment by deadline.

Laidy Bonilla, an archeologist with the National Museum’s Department of Cultural Heritage Protection and who was involved in the raid, told The Tico Times the collection is very large, making up more than half of the 148 artifacts seized so far in 2014. The collection included ceremonial and domestic items such as ceramic vases, pendants, metates — mealing stones used to grind corn and seeds — mortars, and grinding stones from Costa Rica’s Pacific northwest dated between 300 AD and 700 AD.

The National Museum said that 14 of the ceremonial mecates could claim as much as $100,000 each on the black market, according to a statement from Prosecutor’s Office.

Bonilla said there is an active black market in Costa Rica for such pieces and the home raids are common. The Oct. 22 raid was the fifth this year.

The National Museum expert recommended that people who have unregistered artifacts in their home report them to the National Museum to avoid possible legal troubles. Artifacts not registered with the government before 1938 are considered property of the state, she said, adding that proving this ownership is extremely difficult for most people. Bonilla said that voluntary reporting of artifacts would not cause anyone legal trouble.

People with questions can contact the Cultural Heritage Protection Department at (506) 2296-5724 or by emailing proteccion@museocostarica.go.cr.

“Pre-Columbian artifacts are part of the inheritance of the Costa Rican people, and they should been seen as such. They should be valued and respected. People who use them as decorations in their homes are, in some way, devaluing them, and in some ways changing them, causing serious damage,” Bonilla said. “Considering this, I think it’s better people hand them over.”

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