Lucrative Loot The Murky World of the Ancient Artifact Market

Leonardo Patterson in his apartment in Munich.
Peter Schinzler/ DER SPIEGEL

Leonardo Patterson in his apartment in Munich.


Part 3: Dodging the Law

With Santiago having backed away from the sale, Patterson found himself short of cash and the exhibition was put into storage. Ten years later, in 2007, parts of the collection were seized by Peru. Patterson sold his Monte Carlo apartment to pay the storage fees in Santiago and then quickly moved the collection to Munich in March 2008 to escape the reach of the Spanish authorities. Spain, though, responded by turning to Interpol and launching an international search for the vanished objects. The collection was seized by Munich prosecutors in April.

In December 2012, a criminal court in Santiago de Compostela put Patterson on trial for violating export regulations relating to cultural artifacts when he moved his collection to Munich. But the defendant wasn't present at the trial: A German doctor had issued him a certificate of poor health saying that he was unable to travel.

That, however, didn't stop him from heading for Costa Rica just three months later. Peruvian authorities, however, filed for an international warrant for Patterson's arrest and he was detained in the Madrid airport on his return trip and incarcerated pending extradition. He was released for health reasons 10 months later, but was ordered to remain in Spain. Patterson, though, immediately left for Germany.

At the end of 2014, Patterson was arrested in Munich for selling a 10 percent share of an allegedly fake Olmec head (the Olmec were an ancient civilization in Mexico) to a businessman from nearby Starnberg for €85,000. He was released on bail, but one year later was handed a suspended sentence of a year and three months by a Munich court for fraud. Patterson appealed.


When Patterson's collection was seized by the Bavarian authorities in April 2008, it initially looked like a significant coup. A year earlier, Germany had finally ratified the 1970 UNESCO convention and the Patterson collection seemed the perfect test case.

Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica all demanded the return of the objects to their original country of origin. Their argument was that they all had laws forbidding the export of ancient artifacts and the six countries filed a complaint with the Munich court.

For months, the six plaintiffs tried to get permission for their experts to inspect Patterson's collection, but the Munich authorities refused, demanding the payment of guarantees and insurance fees. Furthermore, flying in experts would have been expensive, which led most of the countries to give up.

Ultimately, Mexico was the only country to send experts, and in March 2010, Mexican archeologists examined the collection. The result was sobering: Around a third of the Mexican objects in the collection were fakes.

One month later, the Munich court rejected the complaints filed by the six countries and the ruling was upheld a short time later by a higher court. The courts argued that the law pertaining to the return of cultural objects did not apply in this case because the source countries did not maintain publicly accessible registers in which the objects were listed.

Mexico filed civil litigation and had 691 Mexican objects seized, though the Bavarian state court in Munich lifted the seizure four years later for all of the objects except for two wooden figurines. Another civil court in Munich later awarded them to Mexico, but the case is still pending. All of the remaining objects were handed back to Patterson -- the worst possible outcome for the first test of the 2007 law.

'From a Grave'

The Patterson case is far from an exception. In a report compiled for the federal parliament in 2013, the German government drew a scathing conclusion on the effectivity of the law. The report noted that not a single object had been returned on the basis of the regulation.

The new draft law presented by Culture Commissioner Grütters is supposed to make the return of such objects simpler, primarily by requiring that the owners of the artifacts present an export permit -- which they will be unable to do since virtually every country in the world has laws against exporting ancient heritage. That's the good news.

The bad news, though, is that the law is only to apply to objects that have been brought into Germany since 2007. All others will essentially be legalized in one fell swoop. For dubious dealers such as Patterson, who has been in the business for decades, the new law represents an enormous gift. He will hardly be affected by the new law at all given that he has plenty of older objects he can still sell.

Patterson sees himself as having been unjustly persecuted. "The stuff," he says in mock innocence, "comes from a grave. Nobody put them in there and demanded a receipt. And now they have been dug up by chance."

The reality is that he spent half a century helping to destroy the cultural heritage of his Central American home. The fact that Patterson will never be forced to pay a price for doing so is the true scandal.

Still, he was at least forced to sell the Rolls Royce and his polo horses. He sometimes now even rides the subway. All the men who supplied him with stolen artifacts over the decades have since died and their sons have proven incapable of following in their fathers' footsteps. They no longer know where to find the high-quality artifacts. After five decades of plundering, the springs have run dry.

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