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Costa Rica: One museum's junk is another's treasure

Brooklyn Museum to return 5,000 pre-Columbian artifacts to Costa Rica.

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — It's a homecoming of sorts for thousands of artifacts crafted long before Christopher Columbus stumbled across this tropical isthmus.

The Brooklyn Museum has offered to return the bulk of its 5,000 pre-Columbian pieces taken legally by U.S. railroad and fruit mogul Minor C. Keith from Costa Rica more than a century ago.

The offer is part good will and part housekeeping, according to the New York institution, which has tasked its curators with trimming its overstuffed collection cabinets.

“These are objects that we no longer want for the collection. It makes sense to return them to Costa Rica,” said Brooklyn Museum curator Nancy Rosoff.

She said the museum intends to retain about 10 percent “that are truly exhibition quality.”

Costa Rica is happy to receive pieces handcrafted by its own ancient ancestors — but how to get them here? The gifting Brooklyn Museum certainly is not paying.

Costa Rica’s National Museum inquired among private movers and said it received a bid of $59,000 to pack up and ship the first 983 pieces.

To raise the money, Costa Rican artifact lovers sprang into action. Beila Zider, a retired University of Costa Rica sociology professor, joined up with La Nacion newspaper to launch a dollar-a-person drive.

“Practically everybody gave $20, $30, $50 … . The country took a huge interest,” she said. The campaign raised about $5,000 in a day-and-a-half.

But then the state-owned National Insurance Agency announced it would finance the full shipment.

Zider said she had to return all the donations and seemed slightly forlorn that the government had stepped in and stunted her popular campaign.

“It would have been more honorable if each Costa Rican had given a dollar. We were going to make it,” she said.

The first batch is expected to come in March, according to the National Museum.

Archaeologists are celebrating the return of objects that could help them piece together the country’s past.

Costa Rica has struggled to retain a strong connection with its indigenous groups. Indigenous people currently make up an estimated 60,000 of Costa Rica’s 4.6 million people but recent studies suggest that many more Costa Ricans — who often take pride in having European ancestry — are up to 30 percent indigenous in their DNA makeup.

A new exhibit of pre-Columbian works could help emphasize this heritage.

Brooklyn’s donation will also shed light on an overlooked archaeological site.

Two-thirds of the 16,000-piece Keith collection, held at four separate U.S. museums, is believed to be taken from a site called Las Mercedes in Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope. The site was on the route of Keith’s railroad construction, according to Costa Rican archaeologist Ricardo Vasquez.

The site dates back as far as 1500 B.C. but most of the known ruins were built around 1000 A.D., he said.

Despite Keith’s digging there in the 1880s and decades of plundering that followed, according to Vasquez, the Las Mercedes still holds valuable remains of what appeared to be an important political center of the Huetar people.

Rosoff, the Brooklyn Museum curator, said the Keith pieces are in fine condition and will serve as source material for archaeologists.

“If they find fragments of vessels they may be able to reconstruct what those vessels are by looking at the whole vessels that have a similar shape and form,” she said.

Keith took the objects back to Long Island around the turn of the last century, before Costa Rica had passed its first archaeological protection law, meaning the collection was obtained and left the country legally. Costa Rican law says any archaeological objects found after Oct. 6, 1938, are property of the state.

Keith’s widow donated 600 pieces to the Brooklyn Museum in 1931 and sold the remainder to the museum and three others in 1934, according to Rosoff.

Not all artifacts collections have followed that path.

“The problem with archaeological pieces is that our governments in Latin America don’t find out they exist until they’re already gone,” said Patricia Fumero, former director of Costa Rica’s National Museum, remarking on the illicit trade of artifacts and the difficulty in recovering them.

“Unscrupulous people have gone to archaeological sites, dug up pieces and obtained them illegally," she said. "There’s no legal record of these unscrupulous explorations and therefore no record of the pieces.” (Fumero was sacked as director of the National Museum in August when authorities discovered about 100 artifacts in the home of her aunt and uncle.)

Perhaps the best known alleged marauding is the Patterson collection, obtained by one-time Costa Rican diplomat and art collector Leonardo Patterson. Costa Rica alleges more than 400 pieces in his collection — a trove of more than 1,000 works from a host of Latin American countries believed to be worth up to $100 million — were taken illegally from the country.

Last year Spain managed to recover two ceramic pieces sought after by Costa Rica and tried to return them. But as bad fortune would have it, the objects went missing from the Costa Rican Embassy in Madrid while the ambassador was reportedly on vacation.

As for the Brooklyn Museum’s offer, archaeologist Vasquez said he hopes it sets a precedent. He estimates tens of thousands of Costa Rica’s pre-Columbian artifacts and objects are sitting somewhere overseas.

“It would be crazy and a little bit idealistic to think that all of the pieces will at some point return to Costa Rica,” Vasquez said.

Art lovers like Zider are ready to campaign on their behalf.

“We should be grateful to the Brooklyn Museum for donating these pieces,” she said. “Whether they’re not interested in them or they don’t have room, who cares. What is ours will be ours again.”

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