The New Mexico History Museum is preparing to repatriate an archaeological artifact to Peru, a move that signals the museum’s commitment to cultural diplomacy on the international stage. The exchange of the artifact, a gold pendant from the Moché Period (100-800 AD), will take place on Thursday, Dec. 8, in Washington, D.C.
Assisting in the return is the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where the item has been on long-term loan.
“Museums have changed how they regard artifacts from prehistoric peoples,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the History Museum. “The New Mexico History Museum and Palace of the Governors has also changed in how it chooses which stories to present and preserve. Our focus today is on the stories that played out on this soil. Artifacts from South America can be better used to help museums in Peru tell the stories of their people.
“We want to be an international player on the museum stage. We worked closely with Spain to host the U.S. premiere of The Threads of Memory exhibition in Santa Fe last year. We are working now with Mexico on a joint exhibition about santeros. A reputation for integrity, cultural sensitivity and cooperation are critical to us and foremost in our considerations regarding this request.”
Peruvian officials first raised the question of repatriating the artifact in 1998, when it was included in the exhibition Art of Ancient America at the Palace of the Governors. Citing the National Stolen Property Act, the FBI seized the monkey head, along with two artifacts on loan to the museum over allegations that they had been looted from an archaeological site in Sipán region of Peru. At the time, museum officials said they would return it if evidence proved that was true. Ultimately, the US Attorney’s Office in New Mexico declined to prosecute because of conflicting accounts about the item’s provenance. In 2000, the artifacts were returned to the Palace. Art of Ancient America closed in 2008.
Peruvian Ambassador Luis Valdivieso revived the repatriation request in May 2011. The conflicts over its provenance were resolved by an investigation by the US Attorney’s Office in the District of Delaware, and the History Museum immediately began its process of due diligence. In October, the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents endorsed a recommendation to return the item.
“The Board of Regents never takes de-accessioning lightly,” said Karen Durkovich, president of the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents. “We gave the matter our serious consideration and came to the conclusion that it’s appropriate to work collaboratively with the Peruvian government.”
As described in the Art of Ancient America catalog, the artifact is a “large bead finely modeled in the form of a monkey’s head. Turquoise and shell eyes, lapis nose and open mouth with traces of turquoise on (the) tongue.” The pendant measures 1¾” high by 2¼” wide and has a ball tucked inside of it that rattles when moved.
The item was given to the Palace of the Governors in 1995 by John Bourne, a Santa Fe collector. At the time of the donation, museum officials cautioned Bourne that it could be subject to repatriation, and they agreed it would be returned if a substantive claim emerged.
When the most recent effort emerged, the History Museum worked closely with Bourne and with the Walters Art Museum, and all parties agreed with the decision to return it. “I’m glad that the artifact was available for many New Mexicans to see during the time it was on display here,” Bourne said, “and I support the process of due diligence that has led to it returning to Peru.”
Charles M. Oberly, III, United States Attorney for the District of Delaware, said: “This repatriation is the result of the joint efforts of this office, the FBI Art Crime Team, the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, and the Museum of New Mexico. I commend all parties for their efforts in producing this positive outcome. In particular, I commend the Museum of New Mexico for its selfless and noble action in returning this invaluable artifact to Peru.”