Lords of Sipan

One night in February, 1987, ten thieves, or huaqueros, broke into one of the tombs of the ancient Moche civilization that had flourished along the coast of northern Peru about two thousand years ago. The breakin came at the smallest of three pyramids known collectively as Huaca Rajada (“Temple of the Cracks”), and the ringleader was a thirty-six-year-old unemployed truck mechanic and veteran looter named Ernil Bernal. What they — and the other huaqueros who soon began burrowing into the pyramid — had stumbled upon turned out to be the greatest archaeological treasure trove ever excavated in the Western Hemisphere.

A shoot-out among the huaqueros aroused the police, who called in Dr. Walter Alva of the nearby Bruning Museum and the National Institute of Culture. For the next two years, Alva and his local crew worked intensely at the site while at the same time protecting it — and themselves — from the impoverished people who lived nearby and wanted to sell the artifacts illegally on the thriving antiques market.

When Alva finished his work, he had saved the contents of a necropolis housing the elaborately buried remains of a Lord of Sipan (Sipan, meaning “House of the Moon,” was an old name for Huaca Rajada) dating back to about A.D. 300 and six levels beneath him, another Lord of Sipan several centuries older.

While Alva was carefully digging invaluable golden objects out of the ground, smugglers were scheming to sell to American collectors the objects plundered before Alva arrived at the site. An American, David Swetnam, had connived to move a fortune in Huaca Rajada treasures through England to California, where he had a ready market. (One of his customers was the Nobel Prize winner in physics, Murray Gell-Mann, who voluntarily returned his purchases to the Peruvian government.) Swetnam became the first person in the United States to be imprisoned for smuggling pre-Columbian art treasures.

The man most instrumental in defeating the smugglers was the U.S. Customs Agent Gaston Wallace, whose swift work led to dramatic arrests and seizures. (One collector was foiled by an observant deputy sheriff who found a false door that led to a concealed room that was a virtual museum of priceless objects of art.)

Sidney D. Kirkpatrick spent three years tracking the facts in this story, and it is a good story that he has told well.