The FBI returned 16 cultural items to representatives with the Peruvian government at a ceremony held in Los Angeles today, announced Kristi K. Johnson, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. The repatriated cultural property includes two paintings, 10 historical documents, and four stone axes.

Assistant Director Johnson was joined at the ceremony by the Consul General of the Peruvian Consulate in Los Angeles, and representatives from the U.S. State Department; the United States Attorney’s Office’s Chief Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section; and the University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA).

With the assistance of the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Office in Lima, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture and the UCLA Art History Department, and in coordination with the FBI’s Assistant Legal Attaché in Lima, Peru, it was confirmed that all 16 objects originated from the Republic of Peru and should rightfully be returned to the people of Peru.

Repatriation ceremonies are important displays of the goodwill shared between nations—and today—specifically between The Republic of Peru and the United States. These ceremonies are the results of significant effort by personnel from both countries, including those from the diplomatic, law enforcement, and academic communities.

The items on display at the ceremony represent the rich history of Peru from its Pre-Columbian era through its Spanish Colonial period, and into the 20th Century.

“On behalf of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, it’s my honor to return these national treasures to the people of Peru,” said Kristi K. Johnson, the assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “These objects and the heritage they carry with them took an opaque journey into the United States and now have a clear path of return to Peru through proper diplomatic channels. When they arrive, the Peruvian people can properly behold and care for them, rather than have their fate dictated by the whims of individuals who remove them for personal gain and self-interest.”

The FBI is committed to preserving the cultural heritage of people worldwide and ensuring that it does what it can as a law enforcement entity to ensure that looted and stolen items return to the place that they belong. Through this act of repatriation, the FBI hopes to demonstrate its continuing effort in that regard, and to express its continued cooperation with Peru. The items on display serve as significant reminders of the values and histories of the country from which they came and where they belong. They are described as follows:

“Virgin of Guadalupe”

The “Virgin of Guadalupe” painting tells a story of the Virgin’s apparition to an indigenous boy in Mexico in the early 16th Century. This painting is approximately 8’ x 6’. In February 2002, the “Virgin of Guadalupe” painting was stolen from the Santiago Apostle Church, also known as “Saint James the Apostle” in Ollantaytambo, Peru with six other paintings. The FBI received information that the stolen painting was located in California and an investigation was initiated. The FBI learned about the painting from the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), as the painting appeared on the IFAR’s Cusco inventory which showed it was hanging in the church in the early 1980s. The investigation revealed that in 2002, the painting was hand carried into the United States by a Bolivian art dealer. The painting was sold to an art gallerist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who kept the painting in a personal collection. In 2016, the painting was sold to a buyer in California.

The “Pentecost”

The “Pentecost” is an oil on cloth in frame painting from 17th Century Baroque period. The size of the painting is approximately 58 ¾” by 73 1/8”. In April 1992 the “Pentecost” and other paintings were stolen from the Church of Santa Cruz De Orurillo in Puna, Peru. The stolen artwork was entered into Interpol’s Stolen Works database. A buyer of the painting contacted the FBI to report a painting they sold was in a stolen art database. The FBI investigation revealed that a gallerist in New Mexico purchased the painting at an art show in Santa Fe from a seller from Mexico. The gallerist did not have any records of the transaction. In June 2009, the gallerist sold the painting to a customer. The same year, the customer resold the painting for $15,000 to a person who resides in another state

Ten historic documents

In December 2020, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture advised the FBI of an eBay salesperson that appeared to be selling a historical Peruvian document. The FBI identified the eBay seller in Florida who was offering additional Peruvian documents for sale. An interview of the seller led to the recovery of the 10 Peruvian historical documents. The seller bought the documents at a street market while on vacation in Peru. The dollar amount of the documents did not meet the threshold for criminal prosecution. The individual documents are described below.

  1. Commercial Navigation Registration Certificate from July 25, 1859, signed by Ramon Castilla, President of Peru from 1845-1862. This is a 19th Century Republican Era presidential document issued for the ship “Rosarito” to prove the ship’s nationality and provide authorization to fly the Peruvian flag and navigate Peruvian waters.
  2. Peruvian Army Certificate signed by Army Col. Ananias Lugo on May 18, 1895.
  3. Presidential Appointment to Higher Court of Auditors signed on July 2, 1848, by Ramon Castilla, President of Peru from 1845-1862.
  4. Military Certificate signed on September 30, 1868, by Juan Francisco Balta, who was the State Minister from 1868-1871.
  5. Royal Customs Document signed on September 25, 1794, to document that a load carried by Ignacio Garcia had reached its destination and all fees were paid.
  6. Presidential Appointment signed on March 24, 1841, by Manuel Menendez, President of Peru (1841-1842, 1844-1845).
  7. Shipping License signed on March 30, 1846, issued by the Customs House of Huacho, [ua-sho] Peru.
  8. Recognition Document dated June 1, 1843, signed by Manuel Ignacio de Vivanco Iturralde.
  9. Presidential Appointment signed on March 11, 1846, by Ramon Castilla, President of Peru (1845-1862) to document the appointment of Manuel Caraza as the Dean of the Cathedral of Cuzco.
  10. Presidential Appointment signed on September 28, 1859, by Ramon Castilla, President of Peru (1845-1862) to document the appointment of Jose Sanchez as a member of the Superior Court of Lima.

The 12 pieces described above were voluntarily surrendered to the FBI; however, the recovery of the last four pieces returned today is described below.

Four “Stone Axe Heads”

These stone axes were part of approximately 7,000 artifacts seized in 2014 in Indianapolis by the FBI’s Art Crime Team from the private collection of an amateur archeologist, Donald Miller, who had likely acquired these items in contravention of state and federal law, and international treaties.

In the Summer of 2017, the FBI repatriated 75 artifacts recovered from this case at the Peruvian Embassy in Washington D.C. The four axes were recently identified as being of Peruvian origin. Artifacts from this operation were previously returned to Native American Tribes and to the governments of Peru, Haiti, Canada, China, Ecuador, New Zeeland, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, New Guinea, Morocco, Cambodia, Iraq, Papua New Guinea, and the Dominican Republic. This is the largest single recovery of cultural property in FBI history.

The U.S has entered into a bilateral agreement with various countries that enable the imposition of import restrictions on certain categories of archeological and enological material originating in other countries.

The cultural property being returned today is in furtherance of a bilateral agreement with the United States and the Republic of Peru, which was signed in June 1997 and has been extended and amended since then.

In support of these agreements, the FBI and The FBI Art Crime Team frequently recover and repatriate cultural property to the countries of origin. In some cases, a prosecution results; in others, the statute of limitations has elapsed. In both cases, the recovered objects are returned to the citizens of the respective country. Cultural property is part of the heritage and history of a region and can provide a better understating of previous generations.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team was created in 2003 in response to an increase in cultural property crimes worldwide and it is comprised of a national team of agents based in major cities who specialize in art crime investigations and in returning art and cultural property to its rightful owner, as we’re doing today. There are two members of the special team in Los Angeles.

Art and cultural item buyers are encouraged to review the FBI’s Stolen Art File (NSAF) as a resource—prior to a purchase—to determine if the item has been reported as stolen to the FBI. Stolen objects are submitted for entry to the NSAF by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. Currently, there are about 8,000 listings including fine art, collectibles, or anything that has a cultural value that can be uniquely identified. There are also other private databases that record domestic and international stolen objects. Research of the provenance of an object prior to purchase is also recommended.