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Paying the Price:
Trafficking in Black-Market Artifacts

by Gustavo Garcia Hernandez

Cathedrals like this 16th century sanctuary in San Juan Evengelista,
Jalisco are prime targets for looters. After a recent string of church
robberies throughout the state, some citizens are taking matters into
their own hands. It was reported in late July that the
town of San Andres stopped a burglary in progress.
Police found the perpetrator bound, gagged and lynched inside the
cathedral after receiving an anonymous tip from a local resident. No items
were reported missing from the church and police say they have no suspects
regarding the lynching.

Over the past eight months a string of robberies targeting Catholic
churches and missions in Jalisco, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and San Antonio,
Texas, have brought international attention to church lootings and to the
dealings of traffickers in black market religious artifacts. Among
problems church leaders are facing regarding the thefts is lack of
security and poor inventory of antique religious art and statuary- items
which have become highly sought after in international and national
circles for their intricate craftsmanship and monetary value.
Church authorities acknowledge that perpetrators often work in bands,
pillaging art and other artifacts from cathedrals, later offering them for
sale to the highest bidder. They also admit that inventories of the
artistic archives housed in the temples are, at best, incomplete. The
circumstances have allowed black market merchants to capitalise on the
occasion, often with the assistance of clergymen members.
Parish members tempted into making a quick profit are responsible for some
of the robberies, as was the case with a recently incriminated Jalisco man
(whose identity has not be released as of press time). According to
official reports, the thief lifted three articles from the cathedral,
which he later sold for $5000 pesos (about $590 dollars) each. The
Archbishop, using the church’s savings, recovered the pieces from a
middle-man to the tune of 120 thousand pesos (over 14,000 dollars).
Jalisco authorities add that in the majority of such cases, specific
pieces are “ordered” from individual criminals, who are later rewarded
with hefty remuneration for the job.
For traffickers who don’t “fear the wrath of God,” perhaps the hand of the
law will discourage some. Guadalajara’s Archbishop has announced that over
the past several years, a large majority of the stolen artifacts have been
reported with full descriptions to authorities. Among items included in
this list are sacred art and religious statuary.
Rumors of citizens self-policing their local cathedrals and even hunting
down stolen artifacts and the perpetrators have also been surfacing in
collectors’ circles recently. One such instance reportedly lead to the
recovery of several important stolen estofados and the arrest of a
prominent Mexico City antiques dealer thanks to a sting-operation carried
out by members of the town from which the pieces were heisted.
Hope of recovery remains for other lost and stolen works of sacred art. In
1999, religious leaders began taking inventory of the items housed in each
church in order to maintain better control. Also, the National Institute
of History and Anthropology (INAH) is currently working with federal
agents to put a stop to the black market dealings. INAH officials are
offering agents intensive training courses on how to identify antique
religious art and statuary.