U.S. Returns Paintings Purloined From Peru, After Journalist Spots Them at Auction

The works were stolen more than a decade ago; both turned up at a New York auction house.

The Holy Family on the Flight to Egypt. Image courtesy Homeland Security Investigations, New York.

The U.S. Homeland Security office in New York announced that its investigative unit will return two important 18th-century religious paintings to Peru.

The two works, Flight to Egypt and The Pilgrim Virgin, by unknown artists, were stolen from La Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, a historic church in Puno, Peru. The theft was discovered in 2012, and the paintings were ultimately trafficked into the U.S. HSI New York and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit began investigating in late 2023, after learning that they were listed in an upcoming auction.

The Pilgrim Virgin of Mercy. Image courtesy Homeland Security Investigations

The Pilgrim Virgin of Mercy. Image courtesy Homeland Security Investigations

According to the Artnet Price Database, both paintings were, at one point, part of a “20th Century Abstraction/Latin American Art” auction at Doyle New York in October 2023. The Pilgrim Virgin carried an estimate of $7,000 to $10,000. It was attributed to the “Peruvian School, Cuzco.” The Flight Into Egypt was estimated at $8,000 to $12,000.

It was a Peruvian journalist, David Hidalgo of Ojo Público, who recognized and flagged the works to Doyle, which then contacted authorities. The works, which had been heavily overpainted since the theft, were immediately withdrawn from the sale days before the October 11 auction.

“We are proud of the active role we played in the recovery of these two works of art,” said Louis LeB. Webre, Doyle senior vice president for marketing and media.

The repatriation was announced by HSI New York acting special agent in charge Erin Keegan; HSI attaché in Peru, Paul Salamon; Marita Landaveri, who is Consul General of Peru; and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

“We are proud to begin the process of turning an atrocious act of stolen religious artwork taken from a sacred place to a parable with a peaceable ending,” Keegan said.

“Today’s repatriation is possible through our Cultural Property Bilateral Agreement and is an example of the close collaboration between HSI and both domestic and international law enforcement agencies to return cultural heritage to the people of Peru,” said Salamon.

Bragg added that it doesn’t matter “whether an antiquity or painting was stolen ten years ago or ten thousand years ago—a stolen object is a stolen object. This investigation makes clear that looting and trafficking is far from a thing of the past, and we will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to aggressively root out and dismantle these schemes.”

Since 2009, HSI has repatriated over 20,000 objects to more than 40 countries worldwide.

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