LA PAZ – The government of Bolivia received on Thursday two Baroque paintings that were stolen in 2002 from a church and have been returned to the Andean nation thanks to the efforts of a U.S. couple who are also prominent art collectors.
In a ceremony at the Government Palace, the paintings, “Huida a Egipto” and “Virgen de la Candelaria,” dating from the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, were presented to President Evo Morales by New Yorkers Richard and Roberta Huber.
The paintings were among 10 artworks stolen in 2002 from the Church of San Martin in the Andean city of Potosi.
While three people were sentenced to 13 years in prison for the heist, the paintings were not recovered and they remained on Interpol’s list of stolen art.
The U.S. couple legally bought the two Baroque paintings at a Sao Paulo gallery and then paid to have them restored by experts at the Brooklyn Museum.
Richard Huber said during Thursday’s ceremony that he and his wife did not learn that the paintings were stolen until they were preparing their personal collection for an exhibition.
Once they knew the truth, they began the process of trying to return the art to Bolivia, he said.
“It was not easy to return them, but with help from the Bolivia-American Chamber of Commerce of New York and after a pleasant visit to our home by (Bolivian) vice president (Alvaro Garcia Linera), we ironed out the details and prepared for this moment,” Huber said.
Morales gave the Hubers and Chamber of Commerce president Ivan Rebolledo plaques in recognition of their contribution to the preservation of Bolivia’s patrimony.
The president thanked the couple for returning the paintings and said his government will continue its policy of seeking to recover stolen cultural assets.
Morales said the two paintings will return to Potosi next week, but not to the Church of San Martin.
Instead, the paintings will be displayed at the Casa de la Moneda museum, on the site of the colonial-era mint.
“I hope the Catholic Church will forgive me, but we have decided to send the paintings to Casa de la Moneda in Potosi, because if we return them to the church, they may be lost again,” Morales said.
He recalled a 2013 incident at a church near the border with Peru that involved robbers making off with 18 priceless jewels plucked from images of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.