FBI returns to Guatemala ancient Mayan artifacts that were in a private U.S. collection

Roberto Archila, consul general for the Guatemalan Consulate, Los Angeles, on Friday discusses Mayan artifacts with Deirdre Fike, assistant director in charge at the L.A. FBI field office.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Seven ancient Mayan artifacts that were in the possession of a California collector were returned to Guatemala on Friday, decades after the hieroglyph carvings are believed to have been looted from the Central American country.

The pre-Columbian artifacts are four large tablets and three small limestone fragments with carvings of Mayan hieroglyphics and iconography.

The FBI turned over the items, displayed on a long blue table, to the Guatemalan government at a morning news conference at the bureau’s offices in Westwood.


“The pieces … are more than a thousand years old and have a cultural significance to the Guatemalan people, which is invaluable,” said Deirdre Fike, FBI assistant director in charge. The case was handled by the agency’s art crime team.

Federal authorities said the stone pieces were in the possession of a collector who purchased them in the 1970s from a man who was known to deal in looted antiquities. The buyer didn’t know they were stolen, authorities believe.

When the collector died earlier this year, a representative managing the art collection could not determine the date the pieces were brought to the United States or their provenance and contacted the FBI.

The FBI declined to identify the collector.

The U.S., along with dozens of other countries, are party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which prohibits and prevents the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.

Under a bilateral agreement with Guatemala, which restricts the importation of archaeology artifacts into the U.S., the FBI decided to return the Mayan pieces to the government.

Roberto Archila, the Los Angeles consul general of Guatemala, said the artifacts would be shipped to a Guatemalan museum for eventual display.


“The return of these pieces, which speak to our country, culture and our people, is very important to us,” said Archila, who described the artifacts as “priceless.”

“This is our heritage,” he said.

In June, Archila said, the government of Germany turned over three ancient Mayan artifacts.

“In general, all of the pieces that are from Guatemala are very important,” he said. “All of them describe a part of our history.”

Art historians who assisted the FBI in the case believe the three stone fragments were discovered outside a ruined temple in the Petexbatún region of Guatemala. They said the inscriptions are part of a text that — like a calendar — recorded the passage of time.

The four tablets likely originated from the area of El Perú, experts believe. The carvings are of a “mountain monster” representing Earth’s connection with the underworld.

Looting surged in the 1970s when it became illegal in Guatemala to dig up artifacts and sell them or import them out of the country, said Mark Van Stone, an art historian who the FBI consulted with in the case.


The illegal removal of antiquities remains a challenge for the Guatemalan government given that there are about 1,000 ancient Mayan sites in the country, he said.

“It needs to protect its heritage,” Van Stone said. “Things are not that safe out there in the jungle.”

Van Stone said he’s happy the pieces will be returning home.

“It’s the kind of thing that should be displayed in a museum.”

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