Ecuador's works of art are easy marks for thieves


Ecuador's baroque Rosary Chapel once housed exquisite 18th century paintings and sculptures. But today its walls are bare.

A decade ago, the small church in the heart of Quito, Ecuador's colonial capital, lost seven paintings and two religious sculptures to art thieves who are making a fortune off this poor Andean nation's immense cultural wealth.

"It's a double hit. First, because it is an attack on religious ideals, and second, it is an attack on a nation's heritage," said Father Gonzalo Valdivieso, who lives in a rectory beside the 300-year-old chapel.

Ecuador reported 469 works of art missing from 1998 to 2001, making this small nation the second-hardest hit in Latin America after Chile, according to estimates from Interpol.

The highland capital, known for its old-fashioned cobblestone streets and Colonial-style homes, was a center for religious art under Spanish rule from 1534 to 1822.

The Quito school, made up of artists of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry, depicted saints and the Virgin Mary in paintings that were used to convert native people to the Catholic faith and teach the Bible's lessons.

But today these works are smuggled to Colombia and Europe for their artistic value. Paintings from the Quito school form part of Interpol's "red list" of cultural works that are targeted for theft by international gangs.

Most of Quito's 14 main churches and convents don't have inventories of their possessions, which makes it tough to determine the extent of their losses.

UNESCO, which declared Quito a world heritage site in 1978, estimates art thieves buy and sell $1 billion a year in cultural works on the world black market.

But the true monetary value of the works could be five times higher in legitimate auction houses or galleries.

"Art smuggling rates up there with weapons and drugs as one of the most costly trades in the world. All countries are vulnerable, there is no exception," a UNESCO official in Paris said, on condition of anonymity.

Some Quito churches have hooked up alarm systems and started charging an entry fee to weed out thieves.

For years, clerics avoided such steps, hoping that a conservative Roman Catholic population would respect houses of worship.

Experts say thieves select works of art with a buyer in mind. That's why Quito, a city of 1.4 million people, has seen few big robberies like the 1993 theft in the Rosary Chapel.

Most of the time, robbers sneak off with one piece at a time to avoid being caught.

"While the theft is visible, trafficking is not. When people sell pieces or take them abroad, it seems like a normal activity. This is one of our biggest problems," said Jaime Hidrovo, director of Ecuador's state-run Cultural Heritage Institute, which oversees programs to protect historic works.

Just 2% of the works stolen here are ever recovered, according to the institute. There are no data on the thieves themselves, who most often get away.

Authorities worry that Quito is losing a valuable part of its heritage, which lures thousands of tourists each year to the scenic capital in the Andes Mountains.

The city has embarked on an ambitious urban renewal program to preserve its colonial district and keep tourism dollars flowing.

But for thousands of faithful who attend Mass every Sunday, it may be too late. They've already grown used to bare altars stripped of the saints that once attended their prayers.

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