The Coroma Textile Recovery Story: The Lawyers’ Story – PDF

2012 The Coroma Textile Recovery Story: The Lawyers’ Story

Excerpted from a book published by Cristina Bubba Zamora

Two American lawyers, Michael Ratner and Bill Verick, helped Coroma with legal issues in the United States, eventually forcing the return of most of those that were held in New York and San Francisco. Michael Ratner is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, located in New York City. Michael Ratner first describes how he learned of the case, his work to get those textiles held in New York returned, and how he was able to get a large San Francisco corporate law firm and its associate Bill Verick to represent Coroma in its struggle to get the textiles held in San Francisco returned.

In early 1989 I went to La Paz, Bolivia for two months with my wife, Karen Ranucci, a maker of video documentaries. Our first child was almost one and I had taken a leave from my job as the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)–a progressive litigation organization in New York. Karen had won a grant to document the uses made of video in Bolivia by the poor and those engaged in social struggles.1 Over the years she had been deeply involved in documenting and distributing videos about Latin America and knew many Bolivian video makers. From this connection she eventually met Cristina Bubba Zamora because a video had been made about the theft of sacred weavings from Coroma.

One day, probably in April or May, Cristina came to our apartment in La Paz and brought with her the video, “Camino De Las Almas” or “Paths of the Souls.”2 She wanted me to see it because she hoped CCR could help her recover sacred textiles that had been stolen from the Bolivian village of Coroma. I was mesmerized by the video and even though I saw it 18 years ago I still have vivid and moving memories of that remarkable film. I learned how the textiles, hundreds of years, old were treasured by the people of Coroma, an Aymara village, remote from La Paz that had no electricity and that could not be reached by public transportation. The textiles were treasured not because they were worth money. The Coromans valued them because they were considered to embody the souls of their ancestors; they had been worn by their ancestors, and were consulted by the villagers on all important matters such as marriage and the times to plant crops.

The textiles were kept in bundles called q’ipis that marked the geographical limits or demarcations of ayllus, the geographical boundaries of Coroma and its parts. Once a year, on All Saints Day, the textiles were removed from the q’ipis and worn by the villagers. On occasion outsiders were invited in to the ceremonies. Sadly, some of those who saw the ceremonies were unscrupulous textile dealers who wanted to obtain the weavings and sell them to collectors primarily in the U.S. The textiles were not only old and intact but also were valued by collectors because of their ceremonial use

The video shows at least one way this apparently happened. The dealer, at least one of whom was from the United States, would hire a Bolivian middleman who would go to Coroma. In Coroma the middleman met with a custodian of the q’ipis-who had no legal right to part with the weavings—they belonged to the village. With some alcohol and promises of a tractor or other bribes, many of the textiles were stolen.–possibly as many as 400 beginning in the late 1970’s. I am not sure of precisely how the thefts were discovered but either the video showed or Cristina told me of the villagers getting messages from their consultations with the q’ipis that the weavings were lonely. Apart from the manner in which the textiles were acquired, it was also illegal to take them out of Bolivia under its cultural property law.

I was incredibly moved by the video and I had some meetings with Cristina and some of the Coromans. A lot had already happened as Cristina and the Coromans had been working for years to inventory the remaining textiles and to publicize the losses. Some of the middlemen had already been jailed in Bolivia. Cristina told me of a big break they had had in the United States. A specialist in the Andean region, Professor John Murra had received a postcard about an exhibition of Andean art in San Francisco and on the postcard was one of the missing textiles. As a result U.S. customs, at the request of Bolivia and Coroma, seized almost 1000 objects, mostly textiles, from a dealer, named Steven Berger. Among these were many Coroma textiles. Along with the textiles were records of the collectors to whom Berger had sold textiles. This would be important because we might be able to get textiles back from those collectors.

What Cristina and Coroma needed were lawyers in the United States who could make sure the Coroma textiles would be returned, bring suit if it was necessary, and also help track down textiles from the collectors who had bought from Berger and possibly others. Seizure alone by U.S. customs did not mean return to Coroma. The seizure could be contested by Berger and a court would have to decide who had the right to the weavings.

The case was not necessarily the easiest. It was clearly illegal to take the textiles out of Bolivia because of its laws protecting cultural patrimony.

This would be true whether the textiles had been bought legitimately in Bolivia or stolen. But the United States did not enforce Bolivia’s cultural protection law and therefore it was arguably not illegal to bring them into the United States. However, if the textiles were stolen in Bolivia, the owners of the weavings—Bolivia and Coroma-would have good claims against Berger, other dealers, and even the collectors. In most of the United States one cannot legally acquire stolen property even if one does so believing it was not stolen. The rightful owner can get it back. At the same time, the dealers might well argue that the textiles were not stolen but lawfully acquired in Coroma—although this would be a difficult argument.

At around the same time I was in Bolivia, the U.S. did impose import restrictions on cultural textile artifacts from Bolivia which were aimed at stopping the importation of weavings from Coroma—dating from before 1500 to approximately 1850. In March of 1989, in accordance with a request from Bolivia, the United States took action under its domestic law that implemented the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit, Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.3 This was a major step and at the time was only the second time restrictions under the treaty had been imposed by the United States. Of course, it was too late for those textiles which were already in the United States—the law could not be retroactive—and those were the ones Coroma wanted back. The law would certainly be helpful for preventing future thefts and importations and that was good. It also would help us in demonstrating to Customs, U.S. officials, dealers, collectors, and the court (if we filed a case) that the weavings were very important and that every effort should be made to achieve their return.

When I got back to New York I went right to work. The textiles had been seized in California and we would need a California law firm to represent Coroma. Coroma could not pay a fee and we would need a firm to work for free. CCR had worked in the past with a major California law firm, Morrison and Foerster that often took free cases in the public interest. We asked Morison and Foerster if they were interested and they were. They put an associate on the case and that is how I met Bill Verick who was to play a major role in the return of the majority of the weavings recovered by Coroma. That is the subject of Bill’s part of this story.

I also decided to see if I could persuade some of the collectors to return these sacred textiles to Coroma. I had a few of the names from the records that had been seized from Berger. The first one I sought out was a minister in New York. I do not recall the number of weavings he had, but it was roughly 4 to 8. I wrote him letters and called him constantly. I pointed out that to the people of Coroma, these weavings were like pieces of the true cross would be for Christians and that he should do the right thing and return them. Of course, that would result in a financial loss to him. I was not sure what he paid but it could have amounted to $25,000 or more. I even figured out a way he could donate the weavings to a charity and get a tax deduction and then the charity would return the textiles. He never responded. I went to one of his superiors who I knew well and asked him to intercede. He tired, but still no response from the priest.

Then I decided to take more direct action. I went to the American Indian House in New York and told the story of the sacred textiles. They were upset and after considering the matter agreed to meet outside the minister’s church on a Sunday in a protest that would involve both North and South American Indians and include the playing of Bolivian music. I knew it was unlikely the priest could withstand such public attention. A few days prior to the scheduled demonstration, a small news article appeared in the newspaper about the textiles and the demonstration to be held at the church. Within a day I had received a call from the priest. He agreed to bring the textiles to my house where they would be photographed. The photographs would be sent to Bolivia where Cristina and members of the village would determine if they were among those taken from Coroma.

The minister came over and one by one we held them against the wall where they were photographed. We talked about how they were acquired.

The minister gave every excuse that I had heard from other collectors of cultural artifacts: they were legitimately acquired; they were not the weavings we were looking for; and had they been left in the village they would not have been preserved. This last claim is one of the most common defenses among those who acquire the cultural patrimony of others. It is the excuse the British gave and still give regarding the stolen Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Of course, the excuse makes no sense in the context of Coroma: the weavings, some of them possibly 500 years old or more had been preserved the entire time and in almost perfect condition. Moreover, the question was not simply one of preservation; these were sacred objects critical to the cultural and social survival of Coroma. The priests supposed interest in preservation was meaningless and worse: it was cutting the spiritual heart out of Coroma. To this day I never have understood how a minister could have failed to understand the spiritual significance of the weavings.

All of the weavings in the photographs were identified by the Coromans as belonging to Coroma. I remember when the minister brought them back to my house after having been so identified. They were in a box that I placed under my bed for safety. Although, I have little belief in spiritual matters, I felt the presence of those weavings—and wanted them taken back to their home in Coroma as quickly as possible.

On the East Coast we also succeeded in getting back the textiles from one other collector. I had seen an ad in the art pages of a newspaper regarding the sale of Bolivian textiles and the sale was on behalf of one of the collectors who had bought from Berger. I called about them and was sent photographs which were then sent to Cristina in Bolivia and a number were identified as from Coroma. As best as I can recall I then received a message from an art museum in New Jersey asking me about Coroma textiles. I was told that a collector-the same one– wanted to donate them to the museum, but the museum was aware of the import ban on Coroma textiles and that alerted them to question the donation. The next I knew was that these textiles had been returned. One lesson from this last story is the importance of letting people know, particularly museums and collectors, of efforts to get cultural property returned. It makes the world smaller for those who would traffic in such material.

Bill Verick worked as an associate for Morrison & Foerster from 1988 to 1991. In his job there he was assigned to represent Coroma in its effort to recover weavings held by the San Francisco antiquities dealer Steven Berger. Bill Verick describes how he got involved in the case and the work he and his colleagues at Morrison & Foerster did to get Berger to return most of the Coroma textiles.

In 1989 I was working as an associate at the San Francisco establishment law firm of Morrison & Foerster. I was a beginning associate–a small cog in a giant law factory that spent most of its time representing the financial interests of America’s economic elites. The focus of my legal practice was corporate litigation, but my heart was in doing pro-bono work, something to which Morrison & Foerster was proudly committed. During the summer of 1987, leading up to my last year of law school, I had worked at Morrison & Foerster for the summer and during that time, I’d worked with a team of lawyers on a human rights case that Michael Ratner’ s Center.

for Constitutional Rights had sent us. This human rights case involved suing a former Argentine general who was responsible for torturing and killing people for Argentina’s military junta in the 1980s. Morrison & Foerster was happy with and very proud of the work it had done on the human rights case, so when Michael contacted Morrison & Foerster about the Coroma textiles, the firm assigned the case to the same team of lawyers, which included me along with Jordan Eth and Paul Friedman. As the junior lawyer on the project, I was assigned to do most of the work.

The textiles were being held by the US Customs Service after having been seized from Steven Berger, a San Francisco Bay Area antiquities collector who had obtained them by bribing some of the Coromans whom the canton had trusted to keep the textiles. The Customs Service was holding the textiles as evidence, pending a possible US Government prosecution of Berger for importing purloined pre-Columbian artifacts.

Technically, though, in the eyes of the law, because the weavings had been seized from Berger, they still belonged to him until a court ruled otherwise. So we needed to do one of two things: 1.) Have a court make a finding and issue an order that the textiles belong to Coroma; or 2.) Convince Berger to give up the textiles to Coroma.

Michael and I decided these two approaches were not mutually exclusive. If we could threaten Berger with a credible lawsuit, that might motivate him to give up the textiles. So we began to research theories by which we could convince a court to order the Customs Service to give the textiles to Coroma. The legal theory we came up with was to seek a writ of replevin. Replevin is an ancient form of pleading handed down to American in pre-revolutionary times from the English common law. By a write of replevin, a court determines the true owner of a piece of property and then orders whoever has possession of that property to return it to the rightful owner.

Obviously, the most important thing we had to prove in seeking a writ of replevin was that Coroma was the rightful owner of the textiles. To do this, we to show that the textiles came from Coroma; that the canton owned the textiles collectively such that no individual custodian of the textiles could have “sold” them to Berger; and that the Canton of Coroma itself had never sold the textiles to Berger. This required gathering enough credible evidence that we could convince a judge if we were forced to litigate.

Our first task was to identify the textiles in order to show that they were, in fact, Coroma textiles. Bundles of the textiles were being held in a CIA-built vault at the U.S. Customs House in San Francisco, a short walk from my office. Several residents of Coroma along with Cristina Bubba flew up from Bolivia and together with textile anthropologist Karen Bruhns, American Friends Service Committee worker Susan Lobo and Customs Agent Jaimie Tranter, Jordan Eth and I went to the Customs House to determine which textiles came from Coroma.

It is important to remember that the reason these textiles became such an issue is that they are sacred to Coromans; that the textiles are literally the ancestors of today’s Coromans. For this reason, because we were about to approach the textiles, the Coromans had to perform a religious ceremony that involved lighting candles and alcohol. The Customs Service said there would be no burning — sacred or otherwise — in their offices and told us to take the ceremony outside. So there, in the alley behind the San Francisco Customs House, Jordan Eth and I in our business suit lawyer uniforms,

along with various Customs Agents and anthropologists, looked on as our Coroma clients arranged bits of candy, leaves, llama fat and candles on a series of plates. Candles were lit and alcohol was poured on the plates. Our clients then chanted and showed their respect for the weavings. We were then ready to go inside and identify them.

It took us three days, of going over these woolen textiles, having each Coroman look at each weaving, and then explain why and how they knew it to be from Coroma. During the process, Cristina Bubba gave me a crash course in the nomenclature of textiles and textile anthropology. This allowed me to have intelligent conversations with our clients about what aspects of the weaving style was distinctly Coroman as opposed to a style from a different part of the Andes. I wound up taking statements from each of the four Coromans on each of the sixty or so textiles at issue.

These statements were important because they would be turned into declarations that would be used to seek a temporary restraining order in the event it appeared the Customs Service was about to return the textiles to Berger. Berger had filed a motion to have the textiles returned to him and my clients were concerned that if Berger ever got possession of the textiles, they would disappear and Coroma would never have a chance to obtain a writ of replevin. For this reason, we were anxious to prepare all the legal documents needed to obtain a temporary restraining order to keep the textiles away from Berger pending a hearing on Coroma’s application for a writ of replevin.

After taking statements from our Coroma clients, the next step was to show that Coroma owned the textiles communally such that no individual could have “sold” the textiles to Berger. For help in doing this, we turned to experts on textile anthropology. These included Roger Rasnick, Mary Ann Medlin and Karen Olson Bruhns. These experts made statements and then signed declarations testifying that traditional Bolivian communities believed the weavings embodied the souls of their ancestors, that the community worshipped their common ancestors, that this was one basis for social cohesion and common action in the community, and that for all these reasons, the textiles are owned collectively. We also obtained a declaration from Professor Alejandro Garro of Columbia Law School, an expert in Latin American law, in which Professor Garro testified that under Bolivian law, textiles of the sort from Coroma were owned communally and could not be sold by individuals any more than the janitor at the National Archives could “sell” the original United States Constitution.

At the same time we were gathering our evidence and preparing legal documents, we opened a line of communication with Steven Berger’s lawyers. With the cooperation of the Customs Service, we took high quality photos of each of the textiles and each textile was assigned a combination of letters and numbers so it could be identified and discussed. At first, Berger balked at giving back any textiles. To get him to give them up, we had to show him how strong our case was. I put together statements not only from the four Coromans who had visited San Francisco, but also, with the help of Cristina Bubba, statements from many more Coromans who had never left Bolivia. For each textile at issue, we had multiple statements identifying each and explaining how it was known to be Coroman. I sent Mr. Berger’s attorneys a series of letters outlining how solid our case was and how determined we were to get them back. That a major law firm like Morrison & Foerster represented Coroma also communicated to Mr. Berger that if he refused to give up the textiles, Coroma would have the resources to fully prosecute the case. I made Mr. Berger understand that it would be expensive to defend the case and he would be spending a lot of money to achieve what would be, at best for him, a very uncertain outcome.

Soon Berger began to bargain. At this point, Mark Zanides became involved in the negotiations. Mr. Zanides was the Deputy United States Attorney responsible for investigating and possibly prosecuting Berger for violating U.S. laws concerning pre-Columbian antiquities. Mr. Zanides put pressure on both sides to settle the case and he held a lot of cards to make us do so. Mr. Zanides could pressure Berger by threatening to support Coroma’s suit while at the same time bringing criminal charges against Berger. Mr. Zanides could pressure Coroma by threatening to let Mr. Berger go free and to give him back the textiles. Under pressure from Mr. Zanides, the two sides reached an agreement. Berger would give back _ of the total of _ textiles and Coroma would agree to let him keep the remaining _.

This arrangement did not make Coroma happy because Coroma had to let Berger keep _ of its textiles. But just as Berger faced risks if he were actually to litigate with Coroma over ownership of the textiles, so did Coroma. Though Coroma had a strong case, there was substantial uncertainty concerning which judge would be assigned the case and how believable the judge would find testimony from Coroma’s witnesses. If Coroma drew a bad judge, under federal rules, it would be stuck with that judge. And Steven Berger would then know that Coroma had drawn a bad judge and would then be emboldened to not return any weavings. It was possible, though not probable, that Coroma could lose the case and leave Berger with all the textiles. This was a very hard choice for the Coromans to make – which of their sacred weavings would they have to leave behind?

This is a hard thing about being a lawyer – sometimes doing what makes the most sense given the situation still leaves a very bad taste in your mouth. In any event, the remaining _ textiles have not been destroyed. Presumably, Coroma can continue its efforts to find them and get people to help them to buy the weavings or convince the people who currently possess them to just give them back.

When all the legal documents had been signed, the United States Treasury Department called me to say they would be moving the weavings to the Bolivian Embassy in preparation for a ceremony at which the U.S. would formally return them to Bolivia.

1. The video she produced is called “Making Waves” (1989).

2. Eduardo Lopez Zavala is the director.

In the spring of 1992, Michael and Bill went to Washington D.C. to attend the ceremony of the textiles ‘ return. It was a very formal ceremony with the President of Bolivia, the chief of U S. Customs, US. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, and a number of the leaders from Coroma. The day before the ceremony Michael went to meet the ambassador to Bolivia and his wife. The embassy is a very beautiful home and office with a large garden in the back. After a few minutes Michael was taken to a closet where the textiles were awaiting the next day’s ceremony. The housekeeper came down and told Michael that she had been unable to sleep the entire night.

She said the textiles had been speaking to her and keeping her awake. They were crying out of loneliness and wanted to be back in Coroma with the other weavings. Michael was moved to tears.

The next day was the formal ceremony of return. Michael and Bill made short remarks and both were given karakas, a sort of staff or scepter that is a symbol of authority among Coromans. The Coromans were dressed in traditional clothing and played traditional Bolivian instruments. After the public ceremony was over, Michael and Bill, the Coromans and Cristina Bubba were taken by the ambassador and his wife to the back of the embassy courtyard. There, they held a private celebration of the return of the textiles. Silver trays piled with cocoa leaves were passed around and people chewed the cocoa while the Coromans carried out a religious ceremony to welcome the textiles home. They searched out some sticks, lit a small fire in the courtyard, burned various herbs and played more traditional music. The textiles were going home, providently in the year 1992 – 500 years since Columbus first invaded the New World. Sadly, neither Michael nor Bill could not accompany the weavings back to Bolivia. More than 30,000 people were at the airport to welcome the weavings home.