Colombian slab figures are not particularly rare or valuable. The chunky statues, which kind of resembles the silhouette of a candy bar with arms, legs and a face, range in height from four to 20 inches and were produced in the Cauca River drainage in the centuries before the Spanish arrived, Hillary McGann reports at CNN.
But a slab figure returned to the Colombian government by London-based Art Recovery Group is significant since it shines a light on the illegal art trade in South America. According to a press release, the statue was gifted out of Colombia. “According to the consignor, in 1999 he was visiting his then girlfriend’s family in Colombia and was given the sculpture as a departing gift. He was thoroughly searched at the airport for drugs, even including the shoulder pads of his jacket. But while the figure was presented to airport security, it was allowed to leave the country without a second glance,” says Christopher A. Marinello, chief executive officer of Art Recovery Group.
Earlier this year, the man, who wishes to remain anonymous, took the figure to Sotheby’s to auction it off, but was rejected. When he took it to Hampstead Auctions, however, the statue raised several red flags for in-house art historian Beth West. “I noticed that drawn on the base of the figure was a registration number for a museum, thereby denoting that it was part of a collection,” she tells McGann.
It turns out, the figure valued at $13,000 or less, was part of Colombia's National Museum and disappeared from the collection in 1939, though there is no record of how or why the piece vanished. When the sculpture's owner learned that it had been taken from the museum, he turned it over to Art Recovery Group unconditionally. The figure was then returned to Colombia in a small ceremony at the Colombian Embassy in London earlier this month.
"While it is not hugely valuable monetarily, it is quite symbolic of the material that has been stolen from Latin America,” Marinello tells McGann.
In fact, according to Rory Carroll at The Guardian, archaeological sites in Central and South America are being looted at an unprecedented rate, with illegal diggers destroying temples and turning over whole landscapes. Even iconic sites like Machu Picchu and Mirador in Guatemala are being devastated by looters, who sell the ancient art and objects to dealers who then offer them to collectors overseas.
According the Metropolitan Museum of Art, slab figures, like the one recovered by Colombia, were often included in graves and likely served as companions or guardians to the dead.