Thursday, August 24, 2006

Adam and Eve returned to Mexico

Museum of Art returns stolen painting to Mexico


August 24, 2006

San Diego Museum of Art
This is a copy of “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” an 18th-century oil painting stolen from a church in Hidalgo, Mexico, and sold to the San Diego Museum of Art. The painting is being returned to Mexico.
Mexican authorities reclaimed an 18th-century painting yesterday that had been stolen from a church and then sold to the San Diego Museum of Art six years ago.

Many questions remain unanswered as to how the painting ended up at the museum. No arrests have been made despite a two-year investigation into how the artwork was smuggled into the United States.

During a news conference yesterday at the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, Mexican authorities thanked museum officials for their cooperation, but no one from the museum was present.

A framed copy of the painting, “Expulsion From the Garden of Eden,” was displayed during the news conference, but the actual artwork had been removed from the museum yesterday morning to be placed on a plane.

Mexican Consul General Diego Luis Cabrera thanked museum officials and U.S. authorities for ensuring the return of “a work of great artistic value.”

The stolen painting in San Diego, as well as an investigation into a former antiquities curator for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who is on trial in Rome accused of trafficking in looted artifacts, have brought attention to the international problem of smuggled artwork.

Greek officials are trying to reclaim ancient artifacts held by the Getty museum, which recently agreed to turn over two pieces. And Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to return to Italy an unspecified number of Italian artworks believed to have been stolen.

In San Diego's case, the stolen painting was linked in Mexico to Rodrigo Rivero Lake, a well-known art dealer and expert, but apparently no charges have been filed against him in Mexico.

U.S. authorities said their investigation in San Diego was ongoing despite a five-year statute of limitations on this case. They didn't say when that would expire.

“The statute of limitations is expiring, but the investigation is still ongoing because we are pursuing other angles,” said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's San Diego office.

The painting, by an unknown artist, was stolen in 2000 from a Mexican church in the tiny community of San Juan Tepemazalco, in the interior state of Hidalgo. Thieves stole two other paintings from the same church.

The painting came to the museum's attention through a curator hired to help boost their collections. The curator, Marion Oettinger, who later said he wasn't aware the artwork was stolen, put the museum in touch with Rivero, the painting's Mexican vendor.

The museum, under former director Don Bacigalupi, bought the painting in 2000 for an undisclosed price. Yesterday, U.S. and Mexican authorities said in a news release that it had been bought for $45,000.

The Mexican vendor was never identified by the museum, but was determined through other sources to be Rivero.

Cabrera said yesterday that Mexican authorities had interviewed Rivero, but he was unaware of the status of the case.

“It's part of the investigation,” he said. “I don't know if this person is responsible or not . . . for unknowingly buying the artwork.”

Rivero didn't respond to a request for an interview yesterday.

Museum officials said they weren't aware the painting was stolen until it was already in their possession and they did further research.

A new director, Derrick Cartwright, announced stricter policies to verify artworks' origin.

The painting turned out to have been sold to the museum the same year it had been stolen, despite strict Mexican laws that provide little leeway for exporting Spanish Colonial art.

Oettinger told the Union-Tribune in 2004 that he thought the painting was actually in Arizona, being held by an associate of Rivero's.

Cartwright said last night that the museum assisted in the investigation and was eager to have the painting returned to its rightful owners.

“I've been very committed to making sure the museum did the right thing in this case,” he said, adding that the museum prepared a protective crate for the painting's journey back to Mexico.

Mexican authorities said the painting will be turned over to Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. Cabrera said the Institute will decide with the state of Hidalgo's cultural office where to keep the artwork to ensure its security.

Michael Unzueta, special agent in charge of the San Diego office of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said the case's outcome is positive because the painting is going back where it belongs.

“The Mexican people can now proudly share this piece of art with the world,” he said.

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