Twelve ancient stone sculptures seized in Puerto Rico have been returned to the Dominican Republic. The group included pre-Columbian objects belonging to the Taíno people, the Indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean.
“Investigating Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities is an important part of the HSI mission,” Ivan Arvelo, HSI San Juan Special Agent, said in a statement. “The return of these artifacts to our brothers and sisters from the Dominican Republic [is] essential for the continued partnership between the two governments.”
The artifacts were returned in a handover ceremony at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in San Juan on February 24. According to the Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, officers discovered 28 stone artifacts sculptures, as well as one wooden artwork, in the possession of a passenger aboard a ferry incoming to the port of Mayaguez. The individual claimed the objects were replicas, but an expert examination later determined their authenticity.
Archeologist Laura Del Olmo Frese of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture found that five of the archaeological objects were Taíno cultural property. According to a statement from HSI, the artifacts were smuggled into San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, from Santo Domingo after a local collector purchased them from an online auction house.
“We are happy to witness this return of archaeological pieces to our brother country, the Dominican Republic,” Carlos Ruiz, executive director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, said in a statement. “The archaeological pieces are going back to their place of origin. This represents an important contribution to its history and identity. Now, there will be new material that can be researched and studied to better understand the past.”
The sale of looted pre-Columbian art and Taíno artifacts has become the target of growing protests by Taíno activists and allies, many of whom object to the classification of Taíno culture as extinct. In November, demonstrators gathered outside Christie’s New York to demonstrate against the auction of 38 works from the Fiore Arts Collection of Taíno art. Among the lots were ritual spatulas carved from manatee bones, as well as shell, wood, and terra cotta ornaments—several of which were on long-term loan at institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Mexican government, which has redoubled efforts to reclaim cultural heritage in recent years, also called for the cancelation of the sale.
At the time of the sale, activist Stephanie Bailey, a cacike, or chief, of the Arayeke Yukayek, told ARTnews, “Using terms like ‘artifacts’ and ‘extinct’ increases an object’s value, but we’re out here, I’m here. We’re not extinct.”