ICE Responsible for Returning Thousands of Stolen Artifacts to Countries of Origin

Most people know the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as the agency responsible enforcing U.S. immigration policy. However, as a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE also plays a lesser-known role in the return of stolen cultural property to foreign countries. A recent, widely publicized return of ancient Peruvian artifacts that were smuggled into the United States demonstrates the extensive investigative efforts used by ICE to recover and return valuable relics to their respective countries of origin.

During simultaneous ceremonies in San Antonio, Denver, and Boston, representatives of ICE officially returned a variety of priceless artifacts to Peru, including several 18th century religious paintings, a ceramic jar dating back to 100 A.D., a bronze ceremonial blade used by the Incas, and a colonial era silver gilt. The items were recovered as the result of four separate ICE investigations spanning a period of several years, and revealed various tactics that were used to smuggle the items into the United States. One probe revealed that two paintings has been ripped from a church altar in Taray, Peru and then reframed for sale in the U.S. Another investigation exposed dozens of artifacts that had been looted from graves and were being auctioned off on eBay. [See In Its Lesser-Known Role, Immigration Agency Returns Stolen Artifacts, by Jerry Markon, The Washington Post, 22.Oct.2014.]

Since the program to recover purloined cultural artifacts began in 2007, ICE has located more than 7,000 relics that have been returned to 27 countries. Earlier this year, ICE officials returned over $1.5 million worth of stone carvings to India that date back to the 12th century. Recovery efforts are not always limited to artwork and ceremonial artifacts, however. In May of last year, ICE returned a 70 million year old Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton to Mongolia, where it was originally unearthed, after an unscrupulous paleontologist illegally imported it to the United States to be sold at auction. [See T-Rex Returned: ICE Returns Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton to Mongolia, by Thomas Barrabi, International Business Times, 13.May.2013.]

Mercenary adventurers and unscrupulous travelers have long rationalized removing treasures from where they belong. It is heartening to know that real effort is being made by ICE to preserve historic relics and return them, thwarting the weak and outdated “finders keepers, losers weepers” attitude.

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