Wallace Ludel (The Art Newspaper) on the repatriation of Pre-Columbian stone artefacts that had been smuggled into Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic.
In a repatriation ceremony at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in San Juan on 24 February, the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)—a branch of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE—along with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) returned 12 ancient stone artefacts to the Dominican Republic. A number of the pre-Columbian objects had once belonged to the Taíno people, an indigenous group once native to the Caribbean.
According to HSI documents shared with The Art Newspaper, CBP officers were inspecting a ferry at the Mayaguez, Puerto Rico port of entry on 25 December 2013 when they found a passenger in possession of 28 stone sculptures suspected to be Pre-Columbian artefacts as well as one piece of wooden art. The individual claimed the objects were replicas, but the artefacts were detained to determine authenticity.
In April 2014, archeologist Laura Del Olmo Frese of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture determined that five of the artefacts had belonged to the Taíno people and were considered archaeological objects. According to a statement put out by HSI, the items were being smuggled into San Juan from Santo Domingo after being purchased at an online auction house.
“We are happy to witness this return of archaeological pieces to our brother country, the Dominican Republic,” said Carlos Ruiz, executive director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, in a statement. “The archaeological pieces are going back to their place of origin. This represents an important contribution to its history and identity. Now, there will be new material that can be researched and studied to better understand the past. The Archeology program of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture collaborated in the certification process of these pieces, reaffirming our commitment to cultural collaboration with our Dominican brothers.”
“I am proud of the CBP Officers that were able to identify these priceless artefacts. It is our privilege to return these historical treasures to the Dominican Republic,” said Gregory Alvarez, director of field operations for CBP in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. “We will continue working with our state and federal partners to ensure we rescue these types of historical objects from the hands of those who profit on the theft of cultural property.”
In a repatriation ceremony last month in Los Angeles, HSI officials returned ancient stone teaching implements to Iraq, including two stone cuneiform prisms which may have dated back as far as 4,000 years and were used to teach students Babylonian scribal schools how to write, a cuneiform stone tablet and an ancient writing implement. These artefacts were also seized following a purchase at an online auction house.