Spectacular Seizure: Police Seize $100 Million in Latin American Antiquities

German police have seized over 1,000 Latin American artworks which had been secretly imported. Although a collector claims to rightfully own the art, several South American countries are claiming the objects have been plundered from them.

One of the seized objects: a clay bowl
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One of the seized objects: a clay bowl

When German police searched a warehouse in the southern city of Munich they discovered an incredible treasure trove: Packed inside crates and cardboard boxes were over 1,000 Latin American antique pieces of art, thought to be worth more than $100 million (€64 million).

How the Maya, Aztec and Inca treasures got to be in Germany seems to be clear. According to investigators, a Costa Rican art collector had them transported into the country, German news agency DDP reported Wednesday. But what remains murky is who actually owns the treasure: The 66-year-old art collector claims to be the rightful owner of the antique objects -- but several South American countries are claiming they were plundered, according to newspaper reports.

Police in Germany got involved in the case last week when the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) received an international plea from Costa Rica to help track down an "important archaeological art collection." The request was passed on to Germany's regional police forces and led to the search carried out by Bavarian investigators.

Police in Munich announced Wednesday they had confiscated the treasure -- around 1,100 pre-Columbian artworks, including gemstones, sculptures and masks. A police spokesperson told DDP the objects were missing museum pieces from several Latin American countries. Countries including Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Savador are claiming the artworks belong to them and should be returned to their countries of origin.

According to a report in the Wednesday edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Costa Rican art collector, who is currently staying in a Munich hotel, claims to have legitimately bought the artifacts and to have legally exported it. The newspaper says the collector staged a major exhibition of the works in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela in 1997.

When the government of Peru protested that the exhibition contained art work that had been illegally taken out of the country, a Spanish judge ordered the objects should be impounded until their rightful owner could be determined.

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Spain took ownership of the artwork under the country's own laws after it was unable to determine the collection's provenance over a 10 year period. Recently, the objects disappeared from the warehouse where they were being stored, only to be found in Munich. According to the paper, workers at the warehouse where the works were being held allege that the dealer's people paid them €300,000 and retrieved the pre-Colombian treasures. The incident was then reported to Interpol, which alerted German Customs and the federal police.

A police spokesman said the treasures might now end up staying in Germany for several years. In a similar case, he said, Bavarian officers have been investigating the provenance of art stolen from Cypriot churches since the end of the 1990s.

maw/ddp

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