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Chicago CBP Intercepts Small but Rare Mexican Pre-Columbian Artifact

Release Date: 
July 28, 2011

Chicago, Ill. - Rare and tiny, a miniature Pre-Columbian artifact was intercepted by Chicago U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers during a routine outbound operation at O'Hare Airport. Measuring only four inches tall and thought to originate from a multi-piece burial scene in an elaborate underground mountainous tomb, this clay figurine of a Nayarit woman embodies the history of an ancient Western Mexico people, dating back to the early first millennium AD.

In April CBP officers examined a small shipment manifested as containing an artifact. The parcel held an interesting-looking, orange-painted figurine of a woman which was found to have sold for $550 at an auction and was en route from Indiana to the buyer in British Columbia, Canada. CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations enlisted the help of experts in the field of anthropology at the famed Chicago Field Museum for further identification and found the item to be an authentic Pre-Columbian artifact of West Mexico dating to the early first millennium AD. The Nayarit figurine was seized as illegally obtained cultural property under 19 USC 2609.

Rare Mexican Pre-Columbian artifact intercepted by Chicago CBP.

Rare Mexican Pre-Columbian artifact intercepted by Chicago CBP.

"Archeology captures history before the written word, and when a piece of history is lost, even a small piece like this figurine, it is gone forever. Ancient tombs and graves are places known to have valuable artifacts where gravesite looters continually rob countries of their heritage," said Robyn Dessaure, Acting CBP Director of Field Operations in Chicago. "That is why foreign governments are extremely interested in the recovery of these authentic historical items and appreciate CBP officers as protectors of rare and priceless ancient history in many parts of the world."

Recently the Consulate General of Mexico in Chicago affirmed the figurine as a cultural artifact which was illicitly exported from Mexico. The artifact will be returned to the Mexican government in an upcoming CBP and ICE-HSI repatriation ceremony. The case is considered an active ongoing investigation.

CBP officers and ICE-HSI special agents routinely work together to ensure unauthorized exports are not allowed to leave the country. This includes everything from weapons and munitions to technology to rare Pre-Columbian artifacts from a foreign country. Officers have the ability to inspect, search, detain and seize goods being exported illegally or without the proper licenses or license exemptions. CBP is last line of defense in the enforcement of U.S. export control regulations.

Last modified: 
February 9, 2017