Bolivia Claims Repatriation of Alleged Illa Del Ekeko Statue from Historical Museum of Berne

Posted on: April 13, 2014 by

Since 1929, a small-scale (16 cm in height) statue made of green stone and dating from the period between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD has been part of the permanent collection of the Historical Museum of Berne. The statue originates from the Andean highlands of Bolivia, where it was worshiped as a deity against thieves. In 1858, the Swiss natural scientist Johann Jakob von Tschudi acquired the statue from the indigenous people while on excursion in Bolivia – allegedly in return for a bottle of cognac.  After Tschudi’s death, the Historical Museum of Berne purchased the statue from his estate.

It was during a visit to the Historical Museum of Berne in 2012, that the Bolivian Ambassador to Switzerland first spotted the statue. Ever since, Bolivia has been undertaking efforts to effect the repatriation of the statue.  At a first meeting between the Bolivian Ambassador and the Historical Museum of Berne in February 2013, the former claimed that the statue represented an Illa del Ekeko, a deity of wealth in the Aymara-culture. As such, the statue was of outstanding cultural importance to the people of Bolivia.

In January 2014, a second meeting took place between the parties. During this meeting, the Historical Museum of Berne acknowledged that it was in principle willing to follow justified claims for repatriation, referring to the ICOM Code of Ethics. (See article 4.4 of the ICOM Code of Ethics, Removal from Public Display: “Requests for removal from public display of human remains or material of sacred significance from the originating communities must be addressed expeditiously with respect and sensitivity. Requests for the return of such material should be addressed similarly. Museum policies should clearly define the process for responding to such requests.”) However, the Historical Museum of Berne pointed out that it has not been established whether the statue was actually an Illa del Ekeko. Only one Bolivian natural scientist has so far claimed this, whereas all others were of the opinion that the statue represented either a deity of water, a deity of fertility or simply the depiction of a female figure. In order to clarify this question and as a basis for further negotiations, both parties agreed to commission a joint expert opinion. Preliminary results are expected within the next couple of months.

The small-scale statue is likely to generate even greater media attention in the near future, as it will be the subject of a documentary. This dispute forms part of a bigger theme of how museums are dealing with the repatriation claims for cultural objects, which were brought to Europe during colonial times. Although the Historical Museum of Berne stated in its press release of April 2014 that it was confident that the negotiations would lead to a solution favourable to both parties, it also pointed out that repatriation claims were usually very complex and time-consuming.

Sources: ‘Stand der Verhandlungen mit Bolivien bezüglich der Steinfigur BHM Inv. Pe 145’, press release published on the website of the Historical Museum of Berne on 10th April 2014; Dölf Barben, ‘Bolivien schickt hohen Politiker nach Bern – um Ekeko zu holen’, published on Der Bund on 11th April 2014.

Photography of the alleged Illa del Ekeko (© Historical Museum of Berne, photography by Christine Moor)

Photography of the alleged Illa del Ekeko (© Historical Museum of Berne, photography by Christine Moor)