Peruvian Artifact Trafficking

To understand the process of art trafficking in the Peruvian context, we must first consider what an artefact is. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) presents two definitions for the term artefact demonstrating that this term has a specific meaning within different historical, cultural and scientific discourses.  The sense of artefact most relevant to Peruvian artefact trafficking is “an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest: gold and silver artefacts” (OED Online- artefact). An artefact can be made from many materials from pottery and china to textiles and paintings. Throughout time, cultural artefacts have been created to fulfil different purposes.

In the Peruvian context scholarly interest in artefacts centers on understanding the historical and cultural elements that made up the ancients civilizations of what is now called Peru. In the case of the historical site of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham III, a professor and explorer from the University of Yale excavated the mountain site in 1912.  His team excavated over 350 artifacts including fragments, bones, ceramics, stone objects and metal. These artifacts were then transported and kept at Yale University where they remained for just over 90 years. Yale University agreed to return the objects to Peru in the 1920s. An agreement was reached in 2006 eventually prompted the return of most of the artefacts. Yale helped the Peruvian government to create a museum which was completed in 2011. Legal title to all objects is now held by Peru although some of the objects may remain at Yale for further study. During the time period involved in this case, there were no laws in place to restrict the exportation of such artefacts although the Peruvian government rightfully claimed ownership of the property (Kennedy 2007).

Artefacts such as those from the site of Machu Picchu have symbolic value because of their great cultural and historical significance; they also have a high economic value because of the intrinsic value of the material used to create them, for example, gold. Because Yale University had the means to conserve, restore and study these objects when they were first discovered they were able to make the argument for historic preservation initially (Kennedy 2007).

The monetary, rather than historical or cultural value, of artefacts, is the driving force behind of trafficking Peruvian property. Antiquities trafficking is organized by local people seeking to take advantage of the art market by engaging in the illicit extraction, exportation and dealing of artefacts. The case of the historical site of the Moche peoples sheds light on art trafficking in Peru. During the mid-1990s, the Moche people’s funerary treasures located in the Huaca in Sipan, Peru were discovered. A Moche tomb containing gold, silver and pottery was looted almost immediately before archeologists could excavate the site. Peru is known to have professional grave, robbers. Once news of the discovery of the ancient burial site started to draw international attention, illicit activity at the site increased. Local looters headed to the site to dig for artifacts to sell to make extra money after the sugar harvest. The fact that archeologists were officially responsible for the excavation created conflicts with local groups. Native inhabitants of the area protested because in the past experts had taken material with significant monetary value elsewhere without benefiting the community. Luckily, the discovery of the Moche site led to exhibitions and photo spreads in National Geographic. The widespread media attention highlighted the artistic achievements and the complexity of Moche culture and society. In this case, it is likely that human curiosity coupled with an admiration of past culture played a role in protecting the pre-Columbian artefacts in Peru (Atwood 2002).

What happens to the artefacts extracted by local looters?

The process of trafficking an artefact was cut short in the case of the attempted sale of a mummy originating from Southern Peru. In 2009, Bolivian customs officials seized the mummified body of a pre-Columbian toddler before it could be shipped to Europe. A dealer was attempting to ship the 700-year-old mummy to a buyer in France. The traffickers were also discovered to have replaced a missing leg in order to increase the mummy’s value on the “black market.” This case sheds light on the billion dollar market in ancient Latin American artifacts. The Bolivian and Peruvian governments are working together to combat this type of illegal activity. In 2011, the leaders of the both nations, Luis Peirano and his Bolivian counterpart Pablo Groux, signed a bilateral agreement aimed to prevent the sale of illegally obtained archaeological goods through greater cooperation with academic and archaeological organizations. As a result, the Pre-Columbian mummy was returned to the Peruvian government on November 6, 2012 (Ramsey 2012).

Peru has a rich cultural history as a nation. Scholars around the globe are speaking out about the effects of art-looting in relation to art-trafficking. Brian Bauer of the University of Illinois has suggested that looting fuels the art market; he proposes that more regulations should be put in place to protect Peruvian archeological sites. Dr. Margaret Jackson of the University of New Mexico discussed the condition of different archeological sites, observing the tremendous damage affiliated by looters. Dr. Jackson also supports the implementation of regulations and restrictions. Maya Stanfield-Mazzi of the University of Florida through field research in Peru has observed the damage of looting on architecture as well as artifacts and suggests that these losses are damaging to the countries heritage. Therefore, the Peruvian government is working towards cultural preservation through the implementation and creation of laws which will inhibit the illegal trafficking of Peruvian artefacts. In so doing these experts affirm the need for more education on the subject of Latin American antiquities (St. Hilaire-2011).

Samantha Defino

Works Cited

Atwood, Roger. “Stealing History.” Mother Jones May 2002: 24-8. ProQuest. Web.15 Oct. 2013. <>.

Kennedy, Randy. “Yale Officials Agree to Return Peruvian Artifacts.” New York Times 17 Sept. 2007: 1-2. Print.

Ramsey, Geoffrey. “Peruvian Mummy’s Return Points to Artifact Trafficking in LatAm.” InSight Crime | Organized Crime in the Americas. 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2013. <;.

St. Hilaire, Rick. “Scholars Give First-Hand Accounts of Archaeological Looting in Peru.” Cultural Heritage Lawyer. 30 Dec. 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2013. <;.

This entry was posted in antiquities, art crime, artefact, Huaca, illicit trafficking, Moche, Peru. Bookmark the permalink.

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