Madrid To Chicago, Tracking Down Ancient Colombian Treasures
Colombian cultural officials have been busy trying to recover an ancient burial treasure displayed in a Madrid museum.
BOGOTÁ — A decade-long legal battle may culminate this year in forcing Spain to return the Quimbaya collection to Colombia. The collection, consisting of 122 gold and burial pieces of exceptional value, has been in Spanish hands since the late 19th century. Colombians have been clamoring for years for the restitution of this treasure, named for one of Colombia's ancient native cultures. But the stakes are huge, and Madrid has continued to hold onto the collection, which is on display in the capital's Museo de América.
Among those involved in these efforts is Colombian lawyer Felipe Rincón. His lawsuit led to the Constitutional Court ruling in 2016 obligating the Colombian government to make every effort to recover the items. The History Academy of Quindío, the department in western Colombia where the treasure was found in 1890, has been working for years for the return of the treasure.
There is no shortage of data on the items. In 1998, an article by Pablo Gamboa, a professor at the National University in Bogota, registered their existence and explained that they included objects ranging in size from tiny collar beads to a póporoa globular container 35.5 cm high and weighing 1,710 grams, which is the collection's biggest and heaviest object. But Gomboa noted that "what is displayed in Madrid, which is only goldwork, is just part of the original treasure discovered in 1890 in Quindío. That includes a greater number of gold pieces and, like any burial offering, ceramics and other objects."
We didn't know where to start.
The head of the Quindío Academy of History, Jaime Lopera, says the entity began investigating the case in 2003, "with enormous uncertainty and skepticism, because we did not know where to start. It all began with letters we sent to Felipe González, Spain's prime minister at the time, which were never answered. At the same time we knew the ambassador there was Noemí Sanín, and we sent her a letter telling her the Academy was delighted she had shown up in person, and had seen a Colombian treasure worth asking for."
Still, throughout this process, many of the letters were ignored by Spanish authorities. Eventually, the Colombian government was more responsive, and eventually led to the Constitutional Court's historic decision. Lopera calls the Court's order to the president a "moral, not a political triumph," adding that "we managed to overcome a whole lot of obstacles, and all manner of skepticisms before Colombia's highest courts paid heed to a matter that is obviously, just symbolic. The return of the Quimbaya treasure shows that countries can reclaim cultural heritage held by others."
Quimbaya artifacts at Madrid's Museo de America — Photo: Kathe Buitrago via Instagram
The academy is hopeful that should the collection return to Colombia, it could be kept in Quindío, its place of origin, instead of Bogotá. "This is a very important reference in archeology and ethnography, worth staying here and accessible to people who want to see it. That would be a fundamental dream for me ... the Central Bank will want to leave it in Bogotá, obviously there's more security there. But our aspiration is to have an annex in the Armenia Quimbaya Gold Museum so it comes to Quindío," says Lopera.
The 122 pieces in Madrid apparently constitute just a part of the original treasure, and the Academy's research shows that other items are in the Field Museum in Chicago. Lopera says "years ago I was looking for information on Quimbaya pieces and I realized through the computer that there was a museum in Chicago that had pieces from Latin America ... I immediately wrote to the museum's director whose name was online. The gentleman received the letter, I know he did, but never answered."
Lopera says once the Madrid collection is back, recovering the pieces from Chicago will be the next challenge.