This article was prominently featured in the The New York Times Americas section on June 14th. Self-proclaimed “defenders” of their nation’s history, an art historian and an archaeologist have joined together to safeguard Peruvian cultural heritage from illicit smuggling. Trafficking in cultural artifacts has long plagued Peru, beginning with the Spanish conquest of the Inca over five centuries ago, and continuing today through a vibrant global black market in stolen antiquities. These illegal goods, bound for destinations in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, are stolen property of the Peruvian government and its people, whether a pre-Hispanic textile or 18th-Century saber. “No matter how small a piece is,” Gladiz Collatupa, the archaeologist, affirms, “they are part of our identity.”
Particularly alarming is the fact that, according to the article, many of the items are mailed by tourists “unaware they are breaking the law.” Cultural tourists may purchase what they know to be a traditional craft manufactured as a souvenir; in reality, the artisan may have altered the object with an authentic and illicit object. Otherwise, they may be sending home coins to their children, or masks to the auction block. The presumed innocence of the tourist remains, and it is unlikely anybody would face serious repercussions. (“Since 2007, no one has been sent to prison for cultural trafficking in Peru.”) Perhaps this is because the words of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 are not printed at the Lima post office. But also, more likely, it is the relative disconnectedness or ignorance by the average cultural tourist of international regulations on cultural property.