LA PAZ, Bolivia — The centuries-old tapestries depicting gods, animals and people in natural dyes of blue, brown, red and indigo have become the stuff of legal argument.
At issue is not their beauty, which is undeniable, but whether they are private property or the spiritual heritage of an Indian town.
Collectors abroad pay handsomely for such weavings made by Indians of the Andes Mountains from the wool of alpacas, llamas and vicunas.
A prolonged legal battle in North American courts pits international dealers in antiquities against the Aymara Indians of Coroma, 180 miles south of La Paz by dirt road, and has involved the Bolivian, U.S. and Canadian governments.
It is a contest between the concept of private property and the communal ownership in which Indian cultures find religious significance, rooted in the lucrative traffic in antiquities and artifacts from Latin America.
Elders in Coroma, where about 10,000 Aymaras live in thick-walled adobe huts on Bolivia's wind-swept high plains, seek the return of weavings they describe as sacred.
In 1988, U.S. customs agents in San Francisco seized 56 textiles of the pre-Columbian and colonial eras from dealer Steven Berger. Police in Halifax, Nova Scotia, confiscated about 6,000 Bolivian artifacts, including an unspecified number of Coroma weavings, from Roger York, a former partner of Berger.
All the goods are being held pending court rulings on whether they were exported from Bolivia illegally.
Town elders say some people in Coroma sold the cloths, which are kept by families for generations, to Bolivian middlemen without community authorization, and the middlemen sold them to the foreign dealers. The villagers involved have been ostracized, and in some cases jailed.
The weavings are used in religious rites, and community leaders say their loss has disrupted spiritual life. Some blame the absence of the weavings for troubles in the town and surrounding countryside.
One of them, Claudio Torres, said: "The textiles are the collective property of the community and we never authorized that they be taken. They are the spirit of the community. Because they were lost, people have died or lost their eyesight. There is drought and many animals have died."
Torres, who has nine children, makes his living raising llamas and sheep and growing potatoes and grain. He was interviewed in La Paz, where he met with Maria Bedoya, director of the Bolivian Culture Institute, who is helping with the town's case.
Bedoya said she is confident the cloths will be returned. "These weavings are being held captive because somebody took advantage of the good faith of Bolivians," she said.
Speaking by telephone from San Francisco, Berger denied he had violated any laws in buying and shipping the weavings.
"None of the pieces were stolen and all pieces were purchased in good faith," he said. "The Indians want to sell their textiles. I purchased textiles that were for sale."
Cristina Bubba, a Bolivian psychologist who supports the town's efforts, said "the history of the community is depicted in the weavings," and they are used as oracles to communicate with ancestors. "The ancestors orient or direct the community in resolving political, social and individual problems."
If the directions are followed, "the community is blessed, the cattle multiply and there is a good harvest," said Bubba, who has spent four years studying Aymara culture and religion in Coroma. "If the rites are not carried out, negative forces take hold."
About 1.5 million Aymara Indians live in Bolivia and Peru. Their culture, older than the Incas, always has put a value on tribal weavings at least equal to that of gold.
Berger's laywer, Ted Cassman of San Francisco, acknowledged by telephone that the case involved "competing interests."
"If an individual has a textile in his family and he decides to sell it, and some people in the community believe it is not his to sell, the question is, who is to say to whom it belongs?" he asked.
Cassman said it is common in Bolivia for individuals to own, and even collect, old weavings such as those from Coroma, and to consider them private property.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, based in New York City, is among the agencies working with the Indians. Its legal director, Michael Ratner, said the effort is "part of a larger movement to try to get back the patrimony of Indian tribes in the Western Hemisphere."