In a tale worthy of an Indiana Jones movie, German police were gingerly sorting and listing hundreds of pieces of nearly priceless Mayan, Aztec and Incan art after seizing the mysterious hoard worth $100 million.
Law officials said on Wednesday, April 30, it looked as if there would be a long wrangle among governments and a 66-year-old Costa Rican art collector about who is the rightful owner of the treasures, which were exhibited in 1997 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
The pottery and other artifacts, including around 1,000 masks, necklaces and statues, allegedly spirited into Germany in defiance of a Spanish ban, are said to be worth $100 million (64 million euros) on the open market.
German police said there was currently no evidence showing the cache of goods was stolen.
"Since there is a legal dispute as to who has a right to what, the whole lot will remain in custody," said Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann.
Police said the collection went into storage after 1997 and it was unclear how it arrived in Germany. Interpol had circulated a "wanted" notice after it vanished from Spain in defiance of a Spanish export ban.
Spirited to secret location
Costa Rican officials said they have identified hundreds of the pieces
The Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said Spanish officials had previously sealed the items to await legal procedures clarifying who owns them.
German police traced the items after tips from the Munich art-dealing world.
The artifacts have been moved to a secret location to foil any art thieves. They were in dozens of packing crates and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung said there were 1,100 pieces in all.
While a Mexican newspaper, El Universal, claimed most of the items were dug up in Mexico, seizure requests have come in from Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador, all of which say they are rightful owners of some of the collection.
"We must expertly unpack it all and catalogue the items," said police spokesman Karsten Lauber. "These are very valuable things. You don't want to scratch anything."
He said police did not know yet exactly how many items were in the hoard.
Many countries ban exports of ancient art, effectively preventing such items from reaching international auctions and the rich Western collectors who bid the prices up into the millions.
Some nations give local museums the first right to acquire such artifacts.
Costa Rica's National Museum director, Francisco Corrales, told The Associated Press that authorities had been trying to recover the pieces since August 2007 when Interpol sent them photos of the artifacts after they cleared customs in Spain.
"From images that Interpol sent to us we have identified 457 Costa Rican pieces," he said.