An antiquities legend in an ‘intrinsically lawless’ field
Leonardo Patterson made his first archaeological find at age 7 in a yam field in his native Costa Rica -- a piece of clay pottery his cousin said could be thousands of years old.
It launched a lifelong fascination with pre-Columbian art, and a career checkered by charges of smuggling and selling forgeries. In April, Munich police seized more than 1,000 Aztec, Maya, Olmec and Inca antiquities from Patterson after an international investigation and a chase across Europe.
“The guy is legendary in the field,” said Michael Coe, a retired Yale anthropology professor who told authorities that a 1997 Patterson exhibit in Spain included possible fakes. “He has managed to have a career that is just unbelievable.”
Critics of the profession say the antiquities world continues to thrive on the plunder of history despite tougher laws.
“We need to crack down on dealers and museums,” said Karen Olsen Bruhns, a San Francisco State University archaeologist who often examines seized artifacts for U.S. customs agents. “It is a business which is intrinsically lawless.”
Patterson, 66, maintains that he has done nothing illegal and that he assembled the exhibit from several collectors.
“All of that stuff, I got it in Europe. I don’t traffic pieces,” he said in a rare three-hour interview.
Patterson started out in the antiquities business as a middleman for treasure hunters and collectors in the 1960s, when the trade in pre-Columbian treasures was a free-for-all.
Today he lives in a Munich high-rise with his girlfriend and their two children. (He has 11 other children by five other women.) The apartment is cluttered with posters from his various exhibits. There are photos of Patterson with Pope John Paul II and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. He says he knew the artists Willem de Kooning and Salvador Dali.
He also maintains a Paris apartment, was named a Costa Rican diplomat to the United Nations, and says he discovered a tribe in Costa Rica and a temple in Veracruz, Mexico.
The son of Jamaican parents -- a farming mother and an absentee father -- Patterson grew up in Cahuita, a village on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. He broke horses and grew yucca and yams. His education came from a cousin using the Bible as a textbook.
After his mother died, Patterson left at age 15 for San Jose, the capital, to apprentice as a jeweler. People came to the shop to sell gold trinkets found in ancient graves from Costa Rica’s pre-Hispanic cultures. Patterson mixed them with copper and silver to make cheap new rings.
At about that time, an antiquities salesman recruited Patterson as a jungle guide for a grave-hunting expedition in the backcountry to find artifacts.
Patterson’s work as a jeweler eventually took him to Miami, where he would sit up late telling his landlady stories about the ancient masks and statues he saw in jungle caves.
When she saw a TV documentary about Paul Clifford, a wealthy collector and amateur archaeologist, she wrote to him about Patterson. Clifford introduced Patterson to prominent gallery owners in New York, who launched his career as an antiquities broker.
By the late 1960s, he had moved his business to New York, importing and selling rare pieces that ranged in value from thousands to millions of dollars.
In the 1970s, governments started joining a UNESCO convention to prevent the illegal trade in cultural property. Many Latin American countries passed laws banning the export of archaeological artifacts outside of authorized exhibitions. The United States, a major market for looted pre-Columbian art, signed the convention in 1983.
That’s when Patterson started running into trouble.
In 1984, the FBI charged him with trying to sell a fake Mayan fresco to an art dealer in Boston, and he was sentenced to probation. The next year he was arrested for bringing the eggs of endangered sea turtles into the U.S.
Though Costa Rica named him a cultural attache to the U.N. in 1995, questions about his arrests forced him to resign. He started to spend more time in Europe -- where five of his children live -- befriending wealthy German collectors.
In 1997, he staged an exhibit in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, sponsored by the Galicia regional government.
Coe, the Yale professor, and Gillet Griffin, a retired curator of the Princeton University Art Museum, saw the catalog and warned the Galician government that many of the exhibit pieces could be forgeries.
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Patterson, who moved the collection to a Santiago de Compostela warehouse while waiting to recoup some expenses from Galician officials.
Leafing through the catalog, prominent Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva saw more than 250 ancient Peruvian pieces, mostly from tombs raided in the late 1980s. There were necklaces made of gold and lapis lazuli from La Mina in northern Peru. There were copper masks and a necklace made of 30 gold spiral-shaped ornaments from Sipan, the center of the Mochica culture dating to 200 A.D.
Alva was not surprised that many of the pieces had ended up in private European collections.
“There is a very active market in the United States and Europe,” said Alva. “We have to eliminate this idea that those who collect archaeological artifacts are cultivated people.”
He asked Interpol in Lima, Peru, to investigate. Interpol in turn asked a Lima court for an international arrest warrant for Patterson in 2004.
Four years later, there has been no ruling, according to Interpol officials in Lima.
A chance encounter between Peruvian and Galician police in 2006 helped lead authorities to Patterson’s warehoused exhibit.
During a course in Madrid on antiquities trafficking, a Peruvian officer recounted the Scotland Yard sting. Galician officers remembered the name Patterson and the 1997 exhibit and traced it to the warehouse.
Interpol photographed the pieces and distributed the images abroad in 2007. Alva wrote a report for Spanish police, and Peru recovered 31 pieces.
But before police could investigate further, Patterson had the remaining collection driven to Munich in March. He said he decided to return the pieces to their German owners.
Spanish police alerted German authorities, who seized the collection in a Munich warehouse.
Germany joined the 1970 UNESCO treaty last year, obligating it to take steps to return looted cultural artifacts. But a government claiming pieces must still prove ownership. That could be impossible if they were illegally excavated and sold on the black market.
Spain is investigating Patterson for taking the collection to Germany, under a law that prohibits moving cultural property that has been in the country for more than 10 years without authorization.
Patterson says the investigation shows Spanish authorities can’t prove he was involved in smuggling pieces in the collection from Latin America. He’s confident there will be no charges, and he once again will return to his business -- and pursue his dreams of building a museum in Europe and a resort in Costa Rica.
His critics would not be surprised.
“He always lands on his feet,” said Coe. “He’s an amazing person.”