In late July, policemen raided a home in San Rafael de Heredia to remove 108 pre-Colombian artifacts after receiving an anonymous tip that the homeowners were harboring the pieces illegally.
Police found grinding stones, large clay pots, zoomorphic figures and petroglyphs originating from sites ranging from the country’s Caribbean region to as far as the arid region of Guanacaste.
Although museum authorities had been working with the homeowners to transfer the pieces for years, Museum Director Patricia Fumero said they weren’t complying with deadlines.
Less than a month later, police arrived on the doorstep of a Montes de Oca home and repeated the process of boxing pre-Colombian pieces and transferring them to the museum’s storage facility in Pavas.
In what has seemingly become an intensified campaign to collect pieces of the country’s national heritage – reaching across borders to negotiate transfers and entering local homes to forcibly take possession of artifacts – is, in fact, not the direction the museum’s leadership wants to be heading.
“I want to tell private collectors that this is not the way that we normally operate,” said Fumero. “This was the prior process, and it’s the process that sets in if families don’t cooperate.”
The museum is compelled to seize artifacts under a 1982 law that declares that all pre-Columbian pieces found in Costa Rica are property of the State. Even collectors who shelled out a pretty penny for such artifacts in order to display them in their home are required, by law, to return them to the government.
Only those that have owned the pieces as far back as 1938 are allowed to keep the artifacts in their home, as long as the museum is aware of their existence.
“As a practical matter, all of the collections need to be registered,” said Floria Arrea, an archeologist at the University of Costa Rica, explaining that there are very few owners alive today who purchased their collection before 1938. “The artifacts are no longer private property,” she said.
But rather than set out on a massive campaign to reclaim lost pieces, Fumero has chosen to work personally with collectors, hoping to ease the artifacts out of their grip by loosening one finger at a time.
“It’s more important to document these pieces and have photos of them, than what has happened in other countries, where they have been smuggled across borders and lost,” she said.
Last year, museum personnel went to inspect a collection at a home in San José, and when they returned the next day to pick them up, the pieces were gone.
“Placing a moratorium on (reclaiming collections) would give us the opportunity to locate existing pieces and ensure they are properly documented and stored, and that they are protected,” Fumero said.
But granting such an “amnesty” might have gotten Fumero into trouble, as she was suspended from her post on Tuesday in relation to a case in which she allowed a collection to remain in a private home.
The pieces seized last week in a Montes de Oca home were part of a collection owned by her aunt and uncle. The family had undertaken an extensive excavation process on their property in Guanacaste and had many “important” artifacts in top condition.
“The pieces are in an optimal status of conservation, protection and security,” Fumero said. “For this reason, we haven’t seen the need to go and pick up the pieces.
“Many of these pieces have been registered or have been part of international exhibits,” Fumero said. “The family has not only been willing to give up these pieces, but are also offering money for a room (in the museum) so the collection can remain together.”
The seizure was apparently not done fast enough, as an anonymous phone call led police to show up on the family’s doorstep Thursday, Aug. 19. The following day, the prosecutor’s office announced an investigation and, this week, Fumero was suspended to allow eliminate the potential for conflicts of interest in the case.
According to Fumero, the incident highlights the dilemma regarding the best way for Costa Rica to collect on its natural heritage: Should the country be undertaking the expensive process of seizing collections, only to have them be packed away in boxes at its storage facility in Pavas? And, athough the country displays far more of its collection – approximately 10 percent – than other developing countries, wouldn’t it be better if people were enjoying them rather than sealing them off in a warehouse accessible only by a few?
The San Rafael de Heredia collection is now in crates. The artifacts are packed and sitting in the museum along with 28 pieces transferred back to Costa Rica from Italy in April, 24 items from the Costa Rican Embassy in WashingtonD.C., and two pieces of the famous Patterson collection picked up from Spain in July.
“We have to revisit the 1982 legislation,” Fumero said last Thursday. “The people’s way of thinking has changed.”