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%dheadline(N.M. gallery turns over Peruvian artifact%)

May 7, 2003

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) _ An art gallery turned over to federal agents a rare 16th century Peruvian altarpiece that had been listed as stolen from a remote village.

Federal agents and a U.S. Embassy official in Peru have said the huge altarpiece _ 10 feet by 10 feet and weighing 800 pounds _ was stolen after it was removed from a church during repair work in January 2002.

The piece was turned over to agents of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday after the Ron Messick Fine Arts gallery made arrangements with the government to deliver it to a Santa Fe law office.

``We have recovered it,″ said David Fry, resident agent in charge of the bureau’s Albuquerque office. ``I can guarantee you we have it.″

The carved altarpiece from Challapampa is a depiction of a pair of winged saints with cherubs overhead. It is said to have been done by 16th century South American artists Bernardo Bitti and Pedro de Vargas.

Fry has described the altarpiece as ``irreplaceable.″

Through a lawyer, the gallery issued a statement saying it had checked to see if the piece had been stolen, and ``no evidence of a report of theft was discovered in any well-recognized source.″

Fry said he could not reveal details of how the piece was recovered because the case is part of a federal grand jury investigation in New York.

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