Alleged Peruvian Smuggler Can Reclaim Seized Artifacts

A Moche bone carving seized from Jean Combe Fritz.
Photo: Via Rick St. Hilaire.



A Moche bone carving seized from Jean Combe Fritz.
Photo: Via Rick St. Hilaire.

A Peruvian man charged with smuggling ancient artifacts into Miami can pursue his claim against the US to get the objects back, a federal court decided on Wednesday, according to the Courthouse News.

When Jean Combe Fritz entered Miami in 2010, authorities from US Customs and Border Protection confiscated 32 objects—including a Moche bone carving, an Early Horizon/Chavin stone carving, and a 12-piece Inca burial bundle—which they believed were ancient artifacts from Pre-Columbian and Colonial eras that Combe Fritz had brought in as part of a smuggling operation with his father. The two came on the radar of customs officials because they had made 21 trips to Miami in 10 years, always returning to Peru after a stay of only a day or two.

Customs authorities couldn’t get an expert appraiser to evaluate the objects immediately, so Combe Fritz was released. In 2013, the US sought title to the objects through two forfeiture suits for the items in its custody, claiming that 29 of them were subject to forfeiture under the Cultural Property Implementation Act and the remaining three should be returned to Peru because they’d been stolen or smuggled in. They didn’t pursue a prosecution because Combe Fritz had returned to Peru.

Miami has long been a gateway for smuggled art and artifacts, and continues to be, as evidenced by the recent surfacing of Henri Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Pants (see “Stolen $3 Million Matisse Returns to Venezuela“). But the most common are pre-Columbian artifacts. In 1982, authorities discovered $200,000 worth of Mayan jewelry in a box labeled “garden tools.” In 1995, Miami International Airport inspectors found a mummified head and a ceremonial gold rattle in a crate from Peru. In 2003, also from Peru, authorities at MIA seized decorated skulls.

An expert in Latin American and Pre-Columbian art based in the US examined the objects seized from Combe Fritz and determined that they appeared to be archeological and ethnological objects from Peru. According to the US complaint, the Peruvian authorities also confirmed that the artifacts were part of Peru’s cultural patrimony and had been taken without their consent.

Combe Fritz asserted his claim over the artifacts, alleging that the US couldn’t prove their age or origin or substantiate that they were banned cultural property. Combe Fritz, who had returned to Peru and is not being prosecuted, opposed depositions claiming that the US was using the civil case to build a criminal case against him. While the US sought to have Combe Fritz’s claim dismissed based on his failure to comply with court orders and because he didn’t appear for depositions, US Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman ruled that such a move would be too drastic, pointing out that the US hadn’t shown that Combe Fritz missed his five scheduled depositions on purpose.

District Judge Joan Lenard separately ruled not to dismiss the US’s forfeiture suits.

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