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A rural Kansas town returns invaluable pre-Columbian artifact to Peru: 'The right thing to do'

 A museum in Paola is in the middle of ongoing efforts of trying to return objects from a 38-piece collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.
Rachel Mipro
/
Kansas Reflector
A museum in Paola is in the middle of ongoing efforts of trying to return objects from a 38-piece collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.

The artifacts were thought to be made between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. and come from the Nazca region in Peru. They come from a collection that the Miami County Historical Society and Museum received five years ago from a Kansas City couple's trust.

PAOLA, KANSAS — A Peruvian artifact estimated to be more than a thousand years old, well-wrapped in white tissue paper and stuck into a borrowed school duffel bag, marks the first success of a rural town’s plans to repatriate its art collection.

The museum in Paola began its ongoing efforts of trying to return objects from a 38-piece collection of pre-Columbian artifacts a year ago, after first receiving the artifacts from a Kansas City couple’s trust five years ago. Pre-Columbian is a term used to describe an era of thriving indigenous art in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

“Although this is a wonderful collection, it really doesn’t have anything to do with Miami county,” said Miami County Historical Society and Museum executive board member Gordan Geldhof. “Really, the right thing to do was to repatriate them.”

The collection was authenticated in 1991, when it was determined the countries of origin were Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru. After making little initial headway on the repatriation process, museum officials reached out to U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids’ office, which helped them get into contact with the four embassies in Washington, D.C.

About a dozen Paola residents, including the mayor, gathered inside the museum Monday morning to wait for Carolina Céspedes, who was sent to collect three artifacts on behalf of the General Consulate of Peru in Dallas.

The artifacts are thought to be made between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., and come from the Nazca region in Peru.

Céspedes said that two of the three artifacts are likely replicas, and have been donated to the Texas consulate, but the third, a polychrome vessel, is likely an invaluable original. She borrowed her son’s school duffel bag for transportation, lining it with cardboard and tissue paper to prepare the objects for the airplane ride back to Texas.

“I am very happy,” Céspedes said. “The importance of this is that it’s people to people. Because countries, they do exist, but the care of the people that run institutions, the care of the people that are willing to see, the caring people that are willing to know — that is what unifies the world.”

A polychrome vessel formerly kept in a Miami County museum has been returned to its origin country.
Rachel Mipro
/
Kansas Reflector
A polychrome vessel formerly kept in a Miami County museum has been returned to its origin country.

While Peru is the first to send someone to collect their objects, the museum is now in talks with Mexican representatives to see if someone can collect their artifacts.

Jana Harrington-Barcus, museum president, said the museum would use the room to focus on its own history.

“We have stuff in boxes, neat things,” Harrington-Barcus said. “We have wedding dresses and blankets and stuff that is so old that people need to be able to view, and they’re packed away. We’re excited to be working on each room and trying to make more room.”

Her sister, Sheila Wilson, pointed to the back end of a hallway filled with books, posters and other memorabilia. At the end is a piano that used to belong to the owners of the Patterson Circus.

Wilson’s father bought the piano for their family’s use, before they ended up donating it to the museum.

“A lot of times we lose our history to this type of thing where it goes somewhere and we don’t even know about it and we don’t get to see it,” Wilson said. “I think it’s awesome Peru is getting back some of the artifacts of their social history.”

This story was originally published by the Kansas Reflector.
Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Rachel Mipro