A 16th century tapestry, stolen from the Spanish government in 1979, has been found by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Stolen from a cathedral located in Roda de Isabena, Spain, the tapestry depicts the Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Jesus, and Saint Vincent of Saragossa. The painting was among a collection declared national monuments in 1924 by royal decree.
It wasn't until 2010 that the tapestry resurfaced for sale at the Brussels Antiques and Fine Arts Fair in Brussels, Belgium, after having traveled from Spain to Milan. From Brussels, the painting was sold at auction for $369,000 to a business in Houston, Texas.
At that point, The Spanish Civil Guard's Heritage Protection Group called upon the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents to help seize the historic piece of artwork, according to Richard Halverson, assistant special agent in charge at HSI in Houston.
"HSI understands the cultural and historical significance of protecting a country's treasures," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of HSI Houston, in a press release. "Our special agents are at the forefront of the effort to identify and return these important items to their lawful owners in the same way we would want our global partners to return America's artifacts in the event they were ever stolen."
The tapestry was reclaimed by the HSI local initiative in Houston called "Hidden Relic," but Halverson says tracking down the "illicit trafficking of cultural property is part of what HSI does as a whole."
Asked whether the small boutique in Houston will be refunded the money it paid for the tapestry, Halverson replied, "I don't know, that's between them and the auction house."
Halverson says HSI does not know how this artifact was brought into the United States or whether the gallery smuggled it in.
"They may have declared it not knowing it had been stolen," he said.
It order to try to deter the smuggling of stolen cultural properties in and out of America, Halverson said HSI agents are conducting "outreach programs with local galleries and encouraging them to report anything they might find suspicious about a piece of art."
As of now, the 16th century tapestry is being held in Houston, "under lock and key," says Halverson. HSI will work with the Spanish government to ensure the artifact's safe return home to its native country.