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Costa Rica: One museum's junk is another's treasure

Brooklyn Museum to return 5,000 pre-Columbian artifacts to Costa Rica.

Pre-Columbian artifact, Keith collection
A piece from the Keith collection. (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — It's a homecoming of sorts for thousands of artifacts crafted long before Christopher Columbus stumbled across this tropical isthmus.

The Brooklyn Museum has offered to return the bulk of its 5,000 pre-Columbian pieces taken legally by U.S. railroad and fruit mogul Minor C. Keith from Costa Rica more than a century ago.

The offer is part good will and part housekeeping, according to the New York institution, which has tasked its curators with trimming its overstuffed collection cabinets.

“These are objects that we no longer want for the collection. It makes sense to return them to Costa Rica,” said Brooklyn Museum curator Nancy Rosoff.

She said the museum intends to retain about 10 percent “that are truly exhibition quality.”

Costa Rica is happy to receive pieces handcrafted by its own ancient ancestors — but how to get them here? The gifting Brooklyn Museum certainly is not paying.

Costa Rica’s National Museum inquired among private movers and said it received a bid of $59,000 to pack up and ship the first 983 pieces.

To raise the money, Costa Rican artifact lovers sprang into action. Beila Zider, a retired University of Costa Rica sociology professor, joined up with La Nacion newspaper to launch a dollar-a-person drive.

“Practically everybody gave $20, $30, $50 … . The country took a huge interest,” she said. The campaign raised about $5,000 in a day-and-a-half.

But then the state-owned National Insurance Agency announced it would finance the full shipment.

Zider said she had to return all the donations and seemed slightly forlorn that the government had stepped in and stunted her popular campaign.

“It would have been more honorable if each Costa Rican had given a dollar. We were going to make it,” she said.

The first batch is expected to come in March, according to the National Museum.

Archaeologists are celebrating the return of objects that could help them piece together the country’s past.

Costa Rica has struggled to retain a strong connection with its indigenous groups. Indigenous people currently make up an estimated 60,000 of Costa Rica’s 4.6 million people but recent studies suggest that many more Costa Ricans — who often take pride in having European ancestry — are up to 30 percent indigenous in their DNA makeup.

A new exhibit of pre-Columbian works could help emphasize this heritage.

Brooklyn’s donation will also shed light on an overlooked archaeological site.

Two-thirds of the 16,000-piece Keith collection, held at four separate U.S. museums, is believed to be taken from a site called Las Mercedes in Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope. The site was on the route of Keith’s railroad construction, according to Costa Rican archaeologist Ricardo Vasquez.

The site dates back as far as 1500 B.C. but most of the known ruins were built around 1000 A.D., he said.