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Guatemalans Ask for Artifacts

January 14, 1998

BOSTON (AP) _ Two senior Guatemalan officials personally invited the director of the Museum of Fine Arts to come to their country and see the destruction wreaked by looters of ancient artifacts.

The Guatemalans were trying to convince MFA director Malcolm Rogers to return pre-Columbian artifacts that they say were looted from archeological sites and smuggled to the United States.

The museum, however, isn’t interested in parting with the ceramics.

``Museum officials maintain that the MFA legally owns these works of art,″ the museum said in a statement.

Fabiola Fuentes Orellana, Guatemala’s U.N. Ambassador and consul general in New York, and Carlos Enrique Zea Flores, Guatemala’s vice minister of culture, met with Rogers and MFA deputy director Brent Benjamin on Monday.

Orellana called the meeting a friendly one but said her country had a ``special commitment″ to recover ancient artifacts that have been taken from Guatemala.

``We are following the rules of Guatemalan legislation that says that all archeological artifacts belong to Guatemala,″ she said. ``We are asking them to return those pieces.

She said she offered to arrange to lend the MFA pieces for display.

Rogers and Benjamin declined requests for an interview.

The U.S. Customs service is looking into how the Mayan pieces came into this country.

The Mayan artifacts were bought more than 10 years ago by Landon T. Clay, an MFA trustee, who gave them to the museum in 1988.

The legality of bringing some of the works into this country was questioned then. Rogers said he did not know how some of the objects came to the United States, but said he was certain the museum had legal claim to them.

Guatemala has had a ban on exporting artifacts since the 1969 and the U.N. adopted a similar ban in 1970. The United States imposed emergency restrictions on importing antiquities from Guatemala in 1989.

Clemency Chase Coggins, an archeologist with Boston University, said she warned the museum not to accept the donation in 1988.

``It was viewed as a notorious collection of hots which had been shown at a number of small museums around the country,″ she said. She said the artifacts were ``generally perceived to be relatively recently looted and exported by Guatemala.″

Art experts say displaying such a collection only encourages looters to continue to steal from archeological sites, destroying important information in their wake.

``Just one of those pots represents untold destruction,″ said Coggins.

Ian Graham, a Maya scholar at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, said there isn’t a single site in northern Guatemala that hasn’t been pillaged by looters fueled by collectors’ and museums’ demand.

``One had an airfield nearby with planes that bring in the pay and take out the pots,″ he said.

The ancient pieces are included in exhibits in new galleries the museum opened last month.

Officials of Guatemala and Mali say they will take legal action if the museum does not return the artifacts.

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