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How Does it Feel to Recover a Stolen Artifact?

Photo of a gold Peruvian artifact called a backflap.Photo courtesy Lynne Richardson

We met the smugglers at a rest stop off the New Jersey turnpike. The trio arrived in a black limo bearing diplomatic tags. We knew they were bringing an illicit artifact, a piece of gold armor they were prepared to offload for $1.6 million. The smugglers thought they were meeting an art dealer. Little did they know they had arranged their black market sale with one of my FBI undercover agents.


This was one of my first cases as the FBI's art theft program manager. We arrested two smugglers that day along with Francisco Humberto Iglesias, Consul General of Panama. (He had smuggled the artifact into the country inside his diplomatic pouch.) Iglesias was released due to his diplomatic immunity. The gold backflap, looted from a tomb at Sipán, is now on permanent exhibit at the Museum of the Nation in Lima, Peru.


Illicit trafficking in art and cultural property is a major category of international crime. During my eight-year career with the FBI, I worked with special agents to convict dozens more criminals and to recover at least $150 million worth of cultural property including artwork by Pablo Picasso, Norman Rockwell, Marc Chagall, Auguste Rodin and Peter Brueghel, as well as an original signed copy of the Bill of Rights and Native American ceremonial artifacts.


In 2003, prompted by the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, I created the FBI's first Art Crime Team trained to investigate cultural property cases across the globe.


Was my job glamorous? All I can say is that none of my suspects looked remotely like Pierce Brosnan from "The Thomas Crown Affair." Was it dangerous? There were a few uncomfortable moments. But my time at the FBI was certainly interesting and memorable. It was an incredible experience to recover irreplaceable art and artifacts that represent the world's cultural heritage.


-- Lynne Richardson (M.A., '93), a museum studies graduate, is the supervisor of the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley, California. She has worked for the Autry Museum of Western Heritage; Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's historic home; and the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

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