John Schaefer’s Peyton Wright Gallery, where pieces of Spanish Colonial art are listed for tens of thousands of dollars, recently came across an artifact that’s priceless to many.
Schaefer’s gallery handed the statue over to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after being informed it had been stolen from a church in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. But the gallery’s lawyer said the U.S. government would give no guarantee that the Mexican government would return it to the church.
The 3-foot statue depicts the Santa Rosa de Lima, with a crown of roses around her head, wearing a long robe with a foliage motif, her hands extended, baby Jesus resting in her right arm. Gold flecks adorn the statue.
That’s how Robert Nelson, a special agent of the Department of Homeland Security in Albuquerque, described the statue in a search warrant affidavit after he saw it on display at the Peyton Wright Gallery last month. Nelson wrote that he received a tip in January from Homeland Security in Mexico City that the statue was on sale on the gallery’s website.
After Nelson told Schaefer the statue had been stolen from the Santa Monica Church in 2007, the gallery handed it over to the U.S. government March 6, before the search warrant was issued, according to the affidavit.
The gallery was selling the statue on consignment for the former owner of an art storage business, who said the piece had been abandoned, the affidavit says. The gallery declined to reveal the asking price of the statue.
Mark Rhodes, a lawyer for the Peyton Wright Gallery, said he could extract no guarantee from the U.S. government that the statue would be returned to the church. He said that’s also been true in other cases where he’s represented Santa Fe galleries whose only condition in turning over stolen artifacts was that they be returned to their owner.
Rhodes said he believes more stolen artifacts would be returned if the U.S. government could guarantee that other governments would return the items to their owners.
“All we ask in exchange is one thing: that it get returned to where it was stolen from,” Rhodes said. “If you want to get back more art, run it up to the flagpole at the top and see if we can get a standing agreement to return the art where it came from. I cannot get that representation, period.”
An April 17 federal court filing in the seizure of the Santa Rosa de Lima statue says it was being held in a vault at Homeland Security’s El Paso office.
Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso, did not respond to questions about the fate of the statue.
“Contact the Government of Mexico about its processes for returning stolen artifacts that are recovered,” Zamarripa said in an email.
Attempts to contact the church were unsuccessful, and the Mexican consulate in Albuquerque did not return a voicemail.
The Peyton Wright Gallery says it came across the Santa Rosa de Lima statue after Samuel Silverman sold his local art storage business and found that the statue had not been collected by a person who put it in storage in 2007, according to the search warrant affidavit.
Silverman told Nelson, the Homeland Security agent, that he attempted numerous times to contact the storage space renter to retrieve the statue and pay storage fees, but he was unsuccessful. He then put the statue on consignment at the Peyton Wright Gallery in an attempt to recoup storage fees owed to him, according to the affidavit.
Attempts to reach Silverman were unsuccessful.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. government has found a stolen item on consignment at the Peyton Wright Gallery. In 2004, the Albuquerque Journal reported that a Mexican bas-relief carving was seized by federal agents at the gallery.
The carving was on sale for $225,000, and it had been consigned to the gallery by a Mexican national, according to the Journal.
Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org.