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A valuable 16th-century piece of artwork depicting St. Francis of Assisi was stolen four years ago from the chapel of a poor Mexican village. It's since been returned to its home after the wooden panel was discovered for sale in a Santa Fe, New Mexico, gallery. This is a rare success. Religious art theft has become increasingly common in Mexico and investigators say a large portion of what goes missing ends up in the United States. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:
Over the large wooden doors of the small white chapel, a tinfoil and blue tinsel arch has been erected emblazoned with the words: Welcome, St. Francis Of Assisi, To Your Home.
(Soundbite of hymn)
Group of Women: (Singing in Spanish)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside, a small group of women kneel. They wear their hair in long braids wound through with ribbons. They sing and pray in front of the 7 1/2-foot-high wooden carving showing St. Francis receiving his stigmata.
Mr. MIGUEL MINISTRO(ph): (Spanish spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Miguel Ministro stands by making sure that no one takes pictures or gets too close to the wooden tablet. Ministro is a septuagenerian volunteer guard from the local community here in Xochimilco, a town of about 20,000 people nestled in the verdant foothills near the smoking Popocatepetl volcano.
Mr. MINISTRO: (Through Translator) No one even realized it was being stolen. In those times, no one really guarded this. We would lock it up and go home.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ministro says the carving has always been a part of the community, housed in the chapel of this former Franciscan convent since it was made in the 16th century. He says one night a large group of thieves came in and spirited away the 450-pound icon. The villagers had no idea where it had ended up until it was discovered for sale in a Santa Fe gallery in 2004 with a price tag of $225,000. The town priest, Father Juan Rangel Munoz, said although this story had a happy ending, the incident is far from isolated.
Father JUAN RANGEL MUNOZ: (Through Translator) There is a huge amount of theft of sacred art, not only here but in all of the area and all of the country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And of the tens of thousands of religious paintings, sculptures and other religious artifacts that have gone missing, only a handful have been recovered. In Mexico, the safeguarding of the country's heritage falls to the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH. Near a fountain near the INAH offices is Magdalena Morales(ph), a religious art expert.
Ms. MAGDALENA MORALES (Religious Art Expert): Churches have no guards or any devices to protect them against robbery. And if you take into account that Mexico has more than 60,000 churches and most of them are in very little towns outside the city, you know, in towns that are very poor, then you can imagine that it's very difficult to protect what is inside them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Morales says that while the looting of archaeological sites is possibly more prevalent, stealing from churches has been on the rise. The reason she says is that religious art is fashionable in one very big market.
Ms. MORALES: The colonial things, there is more demand in the United States.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Protecting every small religious site in Mexico is not feasible. The key is creating a national register, she says. That work has begun, but is only 20 percent complete.
Ms. MORALES: In France, they started to do their catalogue, their registration, in the '60s and they have not finished. They have not even done maybe half of it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The St. Francis icon had only been catalogued because of work undertaken to register everything that could be affected by a Popo volcano eruption. According to the international Art Loss Register, on average, 40 percent of stolen art and artifacts end up in a different country. Special agent James McAndrew(ph) is with US Customs and he specializes in art theft. He says art crime is linked with other types of criminal activity.
Mr. JAMES McANDREW (Special Agent): It's not uncommon to find that people are laundering their funds through buying art.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in Xochimilco, though, the loss of their icon had a more spiritual dimension. Dressed in a traditional flowered apron and hunched with age, Antonia Florez Gomez(ph) says she would pray every day for the safe return of the St. Francis tablet when it was gone.
Ms. ANTONIA FLOREZ GOMEZ: (Through Translator) What do you feel when your son dies or when a family member goes missing? Well, do you think it's any different when we lose the grace of God, God's shadow?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Xochimilco is trying to raise funds to install an alarm in the chapel, but for now, says the priest, the best safeguard is the community, whose eyes are firmly fixed on their local treasure again.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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