Remarks for Acting Deputy Assistant Director Michael Nordwall Repatriation of cultural artifacts to The Republic of Haiti

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.  It is my great pleasure and honor to be here today at the the Bureau of Ethnology with Prime Minister Jean-Michel Lapin, First Lady Moïse, Ambassador Sison and all of our distinguished and venerable guests to mark such an important event.  The Republic of Haiti and the United States have enjoyed a long and rewarding history of partnerships across many fronts.  Today marks another milestone in this important partnership, and clearly demonstrates our potential to achieve great results when we work together.

The theft and illicit trafficking of cultural property is one of the oldest and deleterious criminal activities in the world.  Since human hands first created objects of beauty or faith, they have been subjected to theft, destruction and exploitation.  Such crimes diminish the religious, cultural or historical value of objects, reducing them to mere commodities to be traded, bought or sold.  Instead of a single victim, illicit trafficking of cultural goods victimizes entire communities, sometimes entire nations, and deprives all humanity of important knowledge of our past – so important for understanding our future.

The United States and the Republic of Haiti both understand the impact and the transnational nature of these crimes.  Each of our nations is deeply rooted in a diverse cultural heritage, with vibrant communities that share their vision and inspire the world with countless methods of expression.  What results is a multitude of both moveable and immovable cultural objects, objects that are all too often the target of criminal actors who want to exploit them for monetary gain.  Both of our nations are committed to the protection of this cultural heritage, and are actively engaged in targeting the criminal elements that seek to profit from it.

Within the United States, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are firmly resolved to combatting cultural property crime, both within the United States and in collaboration with our global partners.  To address this crime, and to assist in the safe recovery of stolen or looted artworks and other types of cultural property, the FBI created a dedicated Art Crime Team, comprised of special agents with specialized training related to cultural property crime.  As part of the FBI’s overall Art Theft Program, the Art Crime Team leads and coordinates FBI cultural property investigations across the U.S. and worldwide.

It is, in fact, the work of the Art Crime Team that brings us here today.  In late 2013, the FBI received information that a local collector in rural Indiana had amassed an extraordinarily large collection of cultural objects from both within the United States and abroad, much of which was alleged to have been stolen or looted.  Over the course of the next six months, the Art Crime Team investigated the claims and determined that this individual had indeed built an enormous collection. Comprised of more than 42,000 artifacts, this collection represented material culture from across the U.S. and around the globe and was unlike anything previously seen by the Art Crime Team.

Through a cooperative agreement with the collector, the FBI executed a 6-day search operation that resulted in the recovery of approximately 5000 artifacts, and the human remains of nearly 500 individuals – all of which were believed to have been obtained illegally or improperly.  This was the largest single seizure of illicit cultural property in the FBI’s history.

On this table before you is just a sample of what was recovered by the FBI during this operation. Through a long and effective collaborative effort between the FBI and our partners in Haiti’s Ministry of Culture and Bureau of Ethnology, many of whom are with us here today, we were able to identify a total of 479 objects that rightfully belong to the Republic of Haiti.  Today, those pieces come home.

For the people of Haiti, the measure and value of these artifacts cannot be weighed against some arbitrary “market value.”  For them, these pieces represent the deep historic legacy of this amazing island.  A rich heritage that dates back centuries, and that demonstrates skill and imagination of generations of artisans and craftsmen. They define who came before, and provide present day Haiti with a sense of wonder and awe.

It is my hope, and indeed the hope of all who have been part of this complicated effort, that this repatriation signifies our great respect for Haiti’s cultural heritage, and affirms the United States’ commitment to the protection of all cultural heritage.

In closing, I would like to thank my esteemed colleagues from the Ministry of Culture, The U.S. embassy in Haiti, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the FBI’s Art Crime Team, and our Legal Attaché office in Santo Domingo.  I would also like to extend my thanks to the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), particularly to Dr. Holly Cusack-McVeigh and her wonderful team of grad students, without whom we wouldn’t be here today.  Lastly, I’d like to give a heartfelt thanks to the administration and staff of the Bureau of Ethnology, who have worked so tirelessly to allow this ceremony to take place today.  Thank you.