By Julieta Barrera
Buenos Aires, Feb 3 (EFE).- Tons of fossils, dinosaur eggs, more than 10,000 archaeological artifacts and 3,000 other items ranging from rare coins and books to artworks are just a portion of the loot recovered by an Argentine Federal Police unit that was established 20 years ago to battle the trade in pilfered treasures.
The unit’s high-security storage facility in Buenos Aires is also holding $10 million worth of objects such as Egyptian antiquities and Ming Dynasty vases seized in connection with legal disputes over their rightful ownership.
The facility likewise houses more than 500 forgeries of works by artists including Xul Solar, Antonio Berni, Benito Quinquela Martin, Florencio Molina Campos and Salvador Dali that are being kept as evidence in lawsuits and criminal cases.
Heading the Cultural Heritage Protection section is inspector Marcelo El Haibe, who told Efe that one of the first tasks taken on by the multidisciplinary team was compiling a comprehensive registry of stolen heritage items.
“We began with 61 works and today we have more than 5,000,” he said.
“This database, open to the general public, permits access to sensitive information based on which many investigations with highly positive results were opened,” El Haibe said.
Thanks in part to work of the section, Argentina has been able to return more than 3,000 archaeological artifacts to Peru, a historic 16th-century painting to Paraguay’s Museum of Fine Arts and two Ptolemy world maps to the National Library of Spain.
On the home front, the Cultural Protection Section recovered three of the 16 pieces stolen in 1980 from the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires.
While artworks taken incidentally in the course of a burglary often end up in flea markets, specialist art thieves steal specific pieces and wait for the situation to “cool off” before trying to sell them.
The world of counterfeit art can be divided into lone operators and complex organizations that have artists to create the fakes, forgers to work up bogus certificates of authenticity and vendors to place the fakes on the market.
Buyers of stolen art, however, tend to fit a profile, according to El Haibe.
“The person who buys an asset displays it and if he shows it to his friends, acquaintances or guests, they can be the way it becomes known and the police act,” the inspector said.
Argentina law bars the sale of archaeological or paleontological items, but the rich fossil deposits in Argentine Patagonia have proved to be an irresistible lure to looters.
In 2006, nearly four tons of fossils – including dinosaur eggs – offered for sale at a fair in the United States turned out to have been pilfered from a dig in the Patagonian province in Neuquen and exported from Argentina falsely labeled as minerals.
“We were able to obtain that information by way of a criminal complaint. We communicated with our colleagues in the United States, who intervened quickly and were able to confirm that all those fossils came from Argentina,” El Haibe recounted to Efe.
The fossils can now be viewed at the Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Science Museum in Buenos Aires.
The inspector pointed out that the effectiveness of international agreements on returning pilfered items depends on the willingness of individual governments to comply.
“The laws can exist, but if there is no greater inclination on the part of countries, restitution doesn’t work,” he said, citing Germany’s persistent failure to return fossils taken from Argentina illegally by a German scientist. EFE mjbd/dr