Andean Art Theft: Recovering Peru’s Spanish Colonial Heritage

On September 30, 2013 by UW LACIS Blog

“The initial attraction of art theft as a field may be that of a good detective story, complete with beautiful and exotic settings, stolen and forged works, and tales of skullduggery and recaptured paintings or silver. But it also gets one deeply into the complex and often tortured world of Andean Peruvian communities.”

In September (2013), LACIS had the pleasure of welcoming attorney Frederic “Fred” J. Truslow to the UW-Madison campus and to our  rincón of Ingraham Hall. During his stay in Madison, Fred was invited to LACIS to meet  with LACIS Associate Director Professor Alberto Vargas and had the chance to meet LACIS staff. Fred shared with us a recently published article about his fascinating work in Peru.

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“I’m a lawyer living in Washington, DC, and have been involved for over 30 years (20 years of this pro bono) with the problem of how best to stem the continuing theft and loss of Peru’s cultural patrimony, particularly the contents of Andean colonial churches.”

Fred has represented the Government of Peru in cases of stolen patrimony and has consulted for a project creating an art database that will ultimately improve data management and ease the identification and recovery of stolen patrimony. Fred made clear the scope and scale of such an undertaking, mentioning “the 2,500 paintings we photographed in 35 churches of the Archdiocese of Cusco in 1983-84, and the 14,000 works since then catalogued by the Archdiocese and Peru’s Ministry of Culture, unstudied as to imagery, distribution or authorship.  Thousands more such works in other regions of Peru have never been photographed or catalogued.”

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Fred enters into greater detail about his work with Peru in a recent article published in the International Foundation for Art Research Journal (Truslow, Frederic J. “The IFAR Inventory of Cuzco Churches and Its Lessons.” IFAR Journal 14.1-2 (2013): 28), the source of all the images contained in this post. Fred spoke of the fascinating intersection present here of centuries-old culture with technology (image recognition and information access) and police and legal leg-work to clamp down on the  sale of illicitly-acquired works of art. Fred also called attention to the fact that this work presents varied opportunities for field work, “such as inventorying churches in remote areas, or helping to design a searchable database to answer the question Is this specific work stolen?”

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Fred’s closing remarks especially resounded with LACIS students, both undergraduate and graduate:

“It was wisely said by one of your participants in a LACIS round table I attended last year that those living through the process of development are in touch with fascinating problems but don’t have the resources to act, while those back on campus may have greater resources but lack the direct opportunities for action. To cut through this Gordian Knot, I would suggest involving yourself in a specific project like one of those I mention here (and there are so many others) and seeing what can be done.”

LACIS would like to thank Fred Truslow for taking the time to meet with us and for sharing his fascinating work with our community! We hope to welcome you back to Madison in the future.

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