A solid gold ornament in the shape of a monkey head, dating from the 100-800 AD Moche culture of Peru’s north coast, was returned to Peru yesterday by the New Mexico History Museum, at a ceremony in Washington D.C.
The gold bead, measuring 4.5cm tall by 7cm wide and most probably once on a necklace, was part of an exhibition on Art of Ancient America in the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The collection was on loan to the museum since 1998 by private collector John Bourne, and that same year the bead was identified as a Moche artifact by Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva —who discovered the magnificent tombs of the Lord of Sipan— during a visit to the museum. There were also two ear spools and a gold rattle but, unlike the monkey head, these were not later donated by Bourne to the museum.
The monkey head, with turquoise and shell eyes and bits of turquoise in its tongue, has a ball tucked inside to make the bead rattle when moved. It is a fine example of the artistry of Moche metalworkers.
The Peruvian government filed a request in 1998 to repatriate the artifact, on the grounds that it had been stolen from a burial mound in Sipan. In fact, journalist Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, maintained that the four pieces had been stolen from Sipan. He once described Bourne’s collection as among “the finest small collections of pre-Columbian art anywhere.”
The objects were impounded but disagreements eventually led the U.S. Attorney General’s office in Albuquerque to decide not to prosecute and the objects were returned to the museum in 2000.
Then in May this year, the Peruvian government took up the issue again, and following a full identification, the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents voted in October to return the monkey head to Peru.
Museum Director Frances Levine said in a statement that the New Mexico museum’s focus is “on stories played out on U.S. soil” and that artifacts such as the Moche monkey head bead “can be better used to help museums in Peru tell their own stories.”