SAN DIEGO — An 18th century painting stolen from a Mexican church and later acquired by the San Diego Museum of Art was on its way back to Mexico on Wednesday as investigators continued trying to piece together the journey of the smuggled artwork.
The painting, a depiction of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, was slashed from its frame in a small church in San Juan Tepemasalco in the state of Hidalgo in 2000. A few months later, the museum bought the work from a Mexico City art dealer.
The painting had been on display in the permanent collection when museum researchers in 2002 found discrepancies in the ownership records and notified Mexican cultural officials. Mexican officials contacted U.S. authorities in 2004, starting the long legal process to get the painting back.
"Safeguarding national patrimony is one of the most critical and complex issues in the art world," said Derrick Cartwright, the museum's executive director.
"Theft of cultural property, irrespective of its monetary value, is a deeply troubling fact facing all museums today," Cartwright added. "Doing the right thing in this instance was the obvious course of action for the San Diego Museum of Art."
Thefts of religious artwork have soared in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, driven by demand for Spanish colonial artifacts in Arizona, California and other border states. Museums are also an important market for stolen relics.
The thefts have prompted many churches to install alarm systems and motion detectors. Because few of the artifacts are cataloged, tracking stolen pieces is difficult. A few other stolen artworks have been returned, including a $225,000 wooden altarpiece taken from a convent near Puebla that was returned by an art gallery in Santa Fe, N.M.
Luis Cabrera, the Mexican consul general in San Diego, called the painting from Hidalgo a historic work whose cultural value was of much greater significance than its $45,000 purchase price. The art dealer in Mexico City who sold the painting to the museum refunded its cost.
Historians believe the painting, completed in 1728 by an unknown artist, was used by missionaries to convert indigenous people to Christianity.
"Works like this one are not some expendable commodity," said Michael Unzueta, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "They are treasures that hold an important place in our shared international culture."
Unzueta said investigators were examining the painting's chain of ownership. He said the artwork had changed hands at least twice before the museum bought it. No arrests have been made.
"These cases are tough to put together ... the art world is kind of a closed society," he said.
Cultural officials in Mexico City and Hidalgo have yet to decide where the painting will be housed, Cabrera said. He said they would reattach the canvas to the remnants left in the church.