Three years ago, an elderly Italian man pulled his van into a South Florida park to sell some rare, 2,500-year-old emeralds plundered from a South American tomb. But Ugo Bagnato, an archaeologist, didn't know his potential customer was a federal agent.
Bagnato flashed the green gems, which were as large as dominoes, and explained to the immigration and customs agent that he had bribed South American authorities and used fake paperwork to smuggle the highly illegal goods into the United States.
Authorities discovered Bagnato had a cache of more than 400 artifacts from Peru and Colombia, all predating Columbus' arrival in the Americas: burial shrouds, jewelry, terra cotta pots and other treasures were wedged in boxes in his van and kept in a storage unit.
Bagnato was arrested, charged with the sale and receipt of stolen goods, and in 2006, pleaded guilty. He was later deported.
Smuggling is on the rise
It was one of the largest antiquities smuggling cases ever prosecuted in the U.S., but federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement authorities say smuggling of rare artifacts from around the globe into the United States is on the rise — up from 63 cases in fiscal year 2006 to 134 this fiscal year, which ends in two weeks.
Such looting robs countries not only of treasures, but of their heritage — and archaeologists say it also destroys valuable research opportunities.
"A nation's culture is not for sale. These are not souvenirs to be displayed at someone's house," said Anthony Mangione, a special agent in charge of the Miami office of the agency also known as ICE.
But that's exactly what's happening, as artifacts from around the world are surreptitiously carried into the United States and sold by dealers, on eBay or, in the case of Ugo Bagnato, out of the back of a van.
There are several recent cases:
- On Monday, federal authorities will repatriate some 1,000 items, including a rare temple marker worth $100,000, to Iraq. On June 7, 2001, ICE agents in New York received information from the Art Loss Register that a Sumerian Foundation Cone, buried under a Babylonian temple, was being sold by auction at Christie's New York. ICE New York agents seized the artifact from Christie's and discovered that it, and several other items in the U.S., had been stolen from the Baghdad Museum and other locations at the end of the first Gulf War.
- In May, four tons of fossils from Argentina — including 200-million-year-old dinosaur eggs, egg shell fragments, petrified pine cones and fossilized prehistoric crabs — were seized by federal agents in Tucson, Ariz. Authorities said a corporation based in Argentina had brought the fossils into the country. No arrests have been made, but the fossils were repatriated.
- In February, an Army pilot was arrested and charged with stealing 370 pre-dynastic artifacts from the Ma'adi Museum near Cairo, Egypt, and selling them to an art dealer in Texas for $20,000. The artifacts, dating to 3000 B.C. and earlier, were originally discovered during excavations in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. The pilot, Edward George Johnson, pleaded guilty in June and is awaiting sentencing.
"This whole market is driven by the demand for all kinds of antiquities, and the demand is constantly increasing," explained Robert Sharer, curator of the Americas section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.
Looting ancient graves for cash
Adding to the problem, too often people who live in poor areas of Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are willing to loot ancient graves for cash.
"A lot of pieces are disappearing," said Edouard Planche, an assistant program specialist for UNESCO in France. "And these poorer countries have less capacity to control the illegal smuggling."
Many of the smuggled goods are intercepted at U.S. airports and cargo ports.
Sometimes Customs and Border Protection agents find antiquities in suitcases. At other times, agents will get tips about smuggled items from confidential informants or by trolling sites such as eBay.
If agents are suspicious, they call academic experts for help.
Carol Damian, interim director of the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami, said she's gotten a steady stream of calls in recent years to examine Pre-Colombian artifacts smuggled into South Florida.
Sometimes the goods are fake, but occasionally, the rare treasures are breathtaking.
Once in the late 1990s, she was called to assess 15 crates smuggled from Peru — and they contained mummies, shrunken heads and gold.
"It's the past, it's exotic, it's mysterious," said Damian.
Cases are difficult to prosecute
The cases can be difficult to prosecute.
Federal officials say it's sometimes hard to prove a person or company knew they were smuggling illegal items.
"It's very difficult to prove criminal intent," said Joseph Cangro, a cultural artifact expert at ICE.
Museums and galleries, meanwhile, are trying to slow the tide of cultural artifacts entering the United States.
This summer, the American Association of Museums released guidelines that said institutions should make ownership history records publicly available for all ancient art and archaeological artifacts in their collections and rigorously research new acquisitions. Similar guidelines were published earlier by the Association of Art Museum Directors.
Museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, have agreed in recent years to return artifacts to Italy that its government says were looted or stolen.
"Each piece represents a building or a site or a tomb and the complete destruction of it and all the information it could have given us," said Karen Olsen Bruhns, a professor emeritus in anthropology at San Francisco State University. "It's gone forever."