By Agence France-Presse
The United States returned two ancient figurines to Mexico Tuesday, seized from the home of an amateur archeologist who died in 2015 with a collection of 42,000 artifacts, many of them taken illegally.
The small clay sculptures date from the Mesoamerican classical period, around 1,300 to 1,800 years ago, archeologists said at a ceremony at the US Embassy in Mexico City, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) handed back the figurines.
The long, strange story of their return “started with a police investigation, and concludes today with this ceremony, in which Mexico is recovering two artifacts that are part of its cultural heritage,” said Mexican foreign ministry lawyer Sergio Estrada.
The artifacts were found in the US state of Indiana in the home of a collector named Don Miller, officials told journalists.
Miller, who died four years ago at age 91, spent his life traveling the world, participating in archeological digs and collecting rare artifacts, which he displayed in his basement.
But near the end of his life, the FBI — acting on a tip — raided his home and seized more than 7,000 of those artifacts, which appear to have been removed illegally from their countries of origin, said special agent Edward Gallant.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr Miller participated in archeological digs in Mexico and Central America,” and that is when he apparently took the two figurines, Gallant said — though exactly where and when he found them is unclear.
Miller, whose collection also included items from China, Canada, Peru, Iraq and other countries, was cooperating with the FBI before he died, and was never prosecuted, said Gallant.
The FBI has established a database of the suspect items in his collection, and is slowly working through the painstaking process of trying to identify and return them.
Officials said it would take time and research to establish more about the origins and significance of the figurines, which both depict seated men clad only in jewelry.
“When artifacts are illicitly removed from their places of origin, we lose meaningful information about the study of the past. And once that context is destroyed, there is no recovering it,” said Estrada.