ICE returns tribal artifacts to Indonesian authorities

NEW YORK - Five decorative, hand-carved human skulls were turned over to Indonesian authorities Monday during a ceremony at the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia in New York, following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

The skulls are believed to date from the 18th and 19th centuries and are considered "headhunting" trophy skulls from the Dayak Tribe, whose members live on the Indonesian island of Borneo. Each skull is uniquely decorated and intricately carved.

The skulls were encountered in August by officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a mail facility in Newark, N.J. They were shipped in a package from Bali, Indonesia, with a declared value of less than $5.

New York HSI agents took possession of the skulls and began investigating the origin of the shipment. A local fine art specialist conducted an independent appraisal of the artifacts and determined that the replacement value of each item ranged between $3,000 and $4,800.

U.S. customs laws require that shipments with a value more than $2,000 be formally declared upon import. Because the total value of the shipment was approximately $20,000, the skulls were seized and it was determined they should be returned directly to Indonesian authorities. HSI agents continue to investigate the individuals responsible for the shipment of the artifacts.

"The return of this unique and decorative form of art dear to the Indonesian people serves as a reminder that items of historical and cultural significance carry a value far greater than what can be measured in dollars and cents," said Mona B. Forman, deputy special agent in charge of ICE HSI in New York. "We are honored to play a part in the repatriation of these artifacts while paying homage to the heritage of the Indonesian people."

"The Consulate highly appreciates the excellent work and cooperation rendered by ICE HSI and CBP. The intensive and ease of communication, coordination and cooperation between these institutions and the Consulate have made the repatriation possible," said Zahermann Muabezi, Acting Consul General of the Republic of Indonesia. "These artifacts will be flown back to Indonesia on the evening of May 16th. Another handing over ceremony has been arranged on May 18th in Jakarta. It is expected that these skulls will be stored in an institution that would appropriately preserve them."

"CBP is extremely proud to have played an important role in returning these valuable national treasures to their rightful owners," said Robert Perez, director of field operations for CBP in New York. "Working as a team with ICE HSI demonstrates the continuing resolve of law enforcement in the United States to address illegal trafficking in stolen artifacts."

ICE plays a leading role in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, especially works that have been reported lost or stolen. ICE's Office of International Affairs, through its 70 attaché offices in 40 countries worldwide, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.

ICE's specially trained investigators and foreign attachés partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities as well as train investigators from other nations and agencies on how to find and authenticate cultural property, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Those involved in the illicit trafficking of cultural property, art and antiquities can face prison terms of up to 20 years, fines and possible restitution to purchasers of the items.