12 Sep 2011

Seventeenth Century Colonial Paintings

On Christmas Eve in 1997, more than a hundred religious artefacts were stolen from the Church (Templo) of San Andres de Machaca in La Paz, Bolivia. The church, declared a Bolivian National Monument in 1962, had been the target of thieves several years earlier before being stripped of its colonial masterpieces in 1997. The theft was reported to the Bolivian Ministry of Culture and Interpol and subsequently recorded on the Art Loss Register's international database of stolen, missing and looted artwork.

In May 2011, over thirteen years after the theft, the Art Loss Register received a request to search its database of stolen art for two of the Bolivian colonial works. The request was submitted by a U.S. art dealer who claimed to have received the paintings on consignment from an elderly American collector. The art historians employed by the Art Loss Register were able to conclusively identify the portraits of 'Saint Rose of Viterbo' and 'Saint Augustin' from several unique areas of damage thanks to the good quality archival photographs taken by the church prior to the theft.

The ALR handled the complicated negotiations that brought these iconic pictures back to Bolivia. The paintings could not have been located without the important and groundbreaking work of Interpol and the Interpol Database of Stolen Art. This case was emblematic of the cooperation between the public and the private sector, a relationship that is crucial to the protection of cultural heritage worldwide.

In a brief ceremony at the Bolivian Embassy in London on 12 September 2011, the paintings were returned to Ambassador Maria Beatriz Souviron Crespo on behalf of the Bolivian Ministry of Culture.