Peruvian treasure recovered by FBI

An FBI sting that led to the recovery of a rare artifact from ancient Peru came to a successful conclusion July 15, when FBI officials formally returned the object to the Peruvian ambassador to the United States, Ricardo Luna, in a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The artifact -- a golden "backflap," an ornamental shield worn by warrior-priests of the Moche civilization -- was stolen sometime in 1987 from a newly-discovered tomb in Sipan, Peru. News of the tomb's looting quickly spread throughout the archaeological community, where the destruction of culturally significant sites by looters is a serious problem.

Peruvian authorities were able to secure the site from further looting, but many valuable objects had already disappeared into the international trade in stolen artifacts.

News of the backflap's smuggling into the United States reached FBI officials via sources in the community of artifacts collectors last year, and agents posing as wealthy collectors arrested two men from Miami in the parking lot of the Adam's Mark Hotel on City Line Avenue last October.

Archaeologists from the University Museum were called in to positively identify the stolen artifact and help the government build its case against the man charged with smuggling it into the United States.

"We helped them identify it, and suggested to them some other experts who could help bolster the FBI's case," said Clark Erickson, Ph.D., a specialist in Peruvian archaeology and associate curator of the Museum's American section.

"The incredible work by the FBI and government agencies has resulted in the recovery of this amazing piece initially offered by the looters for sale," said Dr. Walter Alva, director of the Bruning Archaeological Museum Sipan Project in Peru, through an interpreter at the news conference July 15.

As a token of its gratitude to U.S. officials, the Peruvian government allowed the Museum to display the artifact along with Moche items from its own collection in a special exhibition before its actual return to Peru. The exhibit ran from July 16 through Aug. 8.

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Originally published on September 3, 1998