The Peruvian consulate in New York announced on 13 September the recovery of two paintings stolen from an Andean village chapel. A California collector, in cooperation with Christie’s, has voluntarily returned the two works, which will soon be repatriated.
Their return goes some way to solving a daunting series of crimes. Time and again between 1991 and 2000, thieves descended upon the Virgen del Rosario chapel in Hualahoyo, Junín, Peru. What was lost over that time was significant: a series of 21 Biblical paintings, commissioned for the chapel by Franciscans in the late 17th century.
Tracey Willfong, of Santa Barbara, inherited the works, Los Sacrificios de Cain y Abel and El Diluvio, from her late father, who purchased them from a California gallery for $20,000 in 1997, unaware of their connection to the chapel. They were reportedly created by an unknown follower of Peruvian master Diego Quispe Tito (1611-81). When Willfong consigned the works to Christie’s New York in 2015, they caught the attention of a museum curator in Lima; once alerted, Willfong, with Christie’s support, immediately sought to return them. The two paintings carried a combined estimate of between $15,000 and $20,000.
“I am very happy to be giving these paintings back to Peru. That’s where they belong,” said Willfong at an event at the Consulate General of Peru in New York, where the country’s ambassador to the United States, Carlos Pareja, expressed a hope that Willfong’s example would inspire others with illicit material to come forward.
The country’s historic (and remote) churches are frequent targets. “In the highlands and the little towns, they don’t have that much surveillance,” Pareja tells The Art Newspaper. To reclaim these treasures, the Peruvian government is “being very aggressive”. Of course, he adds, “We want to have very good relations with Christie’s and with Sotheby’s, but we want them to be aware that the art they sell should be legal.”
These are not the first paintings from the chapel to be recovered. In 2001, three were located in Chile. Eleven years later, the FBI, acting on information from Peru’s Ministry of Culture, seized another work, La Creación de Eva, from Peyton Wright Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Willfong’s two paintings will reunite with the other four at the Museo de la Nación in Lima.