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Two 18th-century paintings that were stolen from a historic church on the shores of lake Titicaca were returned to Peruvian authorities in New York on Thursday (15 February). The paintings had been seized last autumn after the Peruvian Ministry of Culture contacted the auction house Doyle, which had been approached to sell them, raising concerns that the works had been stolen.

Indeed, the two paintings—Flight to Egypt and The Pilgrim Virgin, both by unidentified artists—had been stolen more than a decade prior from the historic Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in the town of Juli in southern Peru. They were then trafficked to Manhattan to be sold.

Both paintings are examples of the colonial-era Cuzco School of painting, an ornate style of devotional art favouring rich colours and exclusively Catholic subjects that would have been used in efforts to convert the region’s Inca population. In addition to the two paintings handed over to Peruvian authorities this week, thieves took six other paintings from Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church, plus various bronze and silver ritual objects, in robberies in 2012, according to Peruvian media reports.

The recovered painting Flight to Egypt

“We are deeply grateful for the cooperation of New York authorities in the successful recovery of two significant colonial paintings, which will soon be returned to the people of Peru,” Marita Landaveri, the consul general of Peru in New York, said in a statement. “This collaboration underscores our ongoing commitment to combating the trafficking of cultural heritage, and we anticipate continued partnership in these vital efforts.”

The work’s recovery and repatriation is the result of joint efforts by Peruvian government authorities, the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and the US Homeland Security Investigations.

“It does not matter whether an antiquity or painting was stolen ten years ago or 10,000 years ago—a stolen object is a stolen object,” Bragg said in a statement. “This investigation makes clear that looting and trafficking is far from a thing of the past, and we will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to aggressively root out and dismantle these schemes.”

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