Leonardo Patterson made his first archaeological find at age 7 in a yam field in his native Costa Rica — a piece of clay pottery his cousin said could be thousands of years old.
It launched a lifelong fascination with pre-Columbian art, and a career checkered by charges of smuggling and selling forgeries. Patterson has become known to many in the close-knit world of collectors and curators as a wily salesman with a nervous stutter and humble demeanor.
“The guy is legendary in the field,” said Michael Coe, a retired Yale anthropology professor who told authorities that a 1997 Patterson exhibit in Spain included possible fakes. “He has managed to have a career that is just unbelievable.”
In April, Munich police seized more than 1,000 Aztec, Maya, Olmec and Inca antiquities from Patterson after an international investigation and a chase across Europe. Mexico, Peru and Costa Rica say some pieces in the exhibit — valued by investigators at more than $100 million — were stolen and are trying to get them back.
Patterson maintains he has done nothing illegal and that he assembled the exhibit from several collectors.
“All of that stuff, I got it in Europe. I don't traffic pieces,” the 66-year-old with the scraggly beard said in a rare three-hour interview with The Associated Press.
It was not his first brush with the law. In 1984, the FBI charged him with trying to sell a fake Mayan fresco to an art dealer in Boston, and he was sentenced to probation. The following year he was arrested for bringing the eggs of sea turtles, an endangered species, into the U.S.
Critics say the antiquities world continues to thrive on the plunder of history, despite tougher laws. U.S. customs agents note a rise in rare artifacts smuggled into the U.S. from around the world.
Patterson's case shows how difficult it is to prove who owns antiquities or how they were acquired. Even some of his detractors say he's being scapegoated, and that there is still little will to confront wealthy collectors, museums and gallery owners who might have stolen pieces.
“We need to crack down on dealers and museums,” said Karen Olsen Bruhns, a San Francisco State University archaeologist who often examines seized artifacts for U.S. customs agents. “It is a business which is intrinsically lawless.”
Began as a middleman
Patterson came from peasant roots and began in the antiquities business as a middleman for treasure hunters and collectors in the 1960s, when the trade in pre-Columbian treasures was a free-for-all.
Today his Munich apartment is cluttered with posters from his exhibits. There are photos of Patterson with Pope John Paul II and the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Another shows him in a polo helmet hefting a winner's cup. He says he was acquainted with the artists Willem de Koonig and Salvador Dali.
He also maintains an apartment in Paris, was named a Costa Rican diplomat to the United Nations, says he discovered a tribe in Costa Rica and a temple in Veracruz, Mexico, and has 13 children from six women.
The Costa Rican-born son of Jamaican parents — a farming mother and an absentee father — Patterson grew up in Cahuita, a village on the Caribbean coast.
After his mother died, Patterson left at age 15 for San Jose, the capital, to apprentice as a jeweler. People came to the shop to sell gold trinkets found in ancient graves from Costa Rica's pre-Hispanic cultures. Patterson mixed them with copper and silver to make cheap new rings.
“I would say to myself, ‘How come I am melting this thing and this was done by another culture? I should not be doing this,'” Patterson recalled in the exclusive Munich high-rise where he lives with his girlfriend and their two children.
At about that time, an antiquities salesman recruited Patterson as a jungle guide for a grave-hunting expedition in the back country to find ancient artifacts. Meanwhile, his work as a jeweler eventually took him to Miami, where he would sit up late telling his landlady stories about the ancient masks and statues he saw in jungle caves.
When the landlady saw a TV documentary about Paul Clifford, a wealthy collector and amateur archaeologist, she wrote to him about Patterson. Clifford introduced Patterson to prominent gallery owners in New York.
By the late 1960s, he had moved his business to New York, importing and selling rare pieces that ranged in value from thousands to millions of dollars. David Bramhall, a retired Manhattan dealer, said he met Patterson at a poker game in the 1970s and remembers a charmer who displayed his wares to potential buyers over lavish dinners.
Bramhall said he was suspicious that some of the pieces were fakes. He never bought any of them, but others did.
By the 1970s, governments started joining a UNESCO convention to prevent the illegal trade in cultural property. Many Latin American countries passed laws banning the export of archaeological artifacts outside of authorized exhibitions. The United States, a major market for looted pre-Columbian art, signed the convention in 1983.
That's when Patterson started running into trouble, accused of trying to sell the fake Mayan fresco. He pleaded no contest, though he says now he was “set up” by FBI officers with a vendetta against him, and that the fresco had been authenticated by an archaeologist.
In 1985, still on probation, he brought the turtle eggs from Mexico and was arrested at the airport in Houston. Patterson told the AP he often brought these eggs with him to the U.S. to eat, but had not declared them in Texas because he was on a layover to New York.
Patterson says a Dallas court sentenced him to up to three months in detention for violating his probation. But about a month into his sentence, his son was killed in a car accident on Long Island, and he was released.
Though Costa Rica named him a cultural attache to the U.N. in 1995, questions about his arrests forced him to resign a few months later. He started to spend more time in Europe, where five of his children live, learning to play polo and befriending German collectors.
He mounted an exhibit of pre-Hispanic art for the Vatican Pavilion at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, Spain, which won him an audience with Pope John Paul II.
In 1997, he staged another exhibit in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, sponsored by the Galicia regional government. The opening was attended by Nobel Peace Prize laureates Rigoberta Menchu and Oscar Arias, now Costa Rica's president.
Felipe Solis, curator of Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology, agreed to write an article for the exhibition catalog, without knowing Patterson or seeing the collection. When he later received a copy of the catalog, he was appalled because many of the Mexican artifacts looked fake.
“I felt that I had been taken for a ride,” Solis said.
Coe, the Yale professor, and Gillet Griffin, a retired curator of the Princeton University Art Museum, also saw the catalog and warned the Galician government that many of the exhibit pieces could be forgeries. Coe said the Olmec pieces included a throne described as made of fired clay — something the Olmecs didn't do.
Patterson filed a $63 million defamation lawsuit against both men, but later withdrew his charges. He declined to comment on whether any pieces in the exhibition were fake.
“I don't know anything about that,” said Patterson, who moved the collection to a Santiago de Compostela warehouse while waiting to recoup some expenses from Galician officials.
When prominent Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva also received a copy of the catalog, he saw more than 250 ancient Peruvian pieces, mostly from tombs raided in the late 1980s.
Alva was not surprised that many of the pieces had ended up in private European collections.
“There is a very active market in the United States and Europe,” said Alva. “We have to eliminate this idea that those who collect archaeological artifacts are cultivated people.”
He asked Interpol in Lima to investigate. Interpol in turn asked a Lima court for an international arrest warrant for Patterson in 2004. Four years later, there has been no ruling, according to Interpol officials in Lima.
Tip at a meeting
A chance encounter between Peruvian and Galician police in 2006 helped lead authorities to Patterson's warehoused exhibit. During a course in Madrid on antiquities trafficking, a Peruvian officer recounted the Scotland Yard sting. Galician officers remembered the name Patterson and the 1997 exhibit and traced it to the warehouse.
Interpol photographed the pieces and distributed the images abroad in 2007. Alva swiftly wrote a report for Spanish police, and Peru soon recovered 31 pieces.
But before police could investigate further, Patterson had the remaining collection driven to Munich in March. He said he decided to return the pieces to their German owners.
Spanish police alerted German authorities, who seized the collection packed into more than a hundred crates in a Munich warehouse.
Germany joined the 1970 UNESCO treaty last year, obligating it to take steps to return looted cultural artifacts. But a government claiming pieces must still prove ownership. That could be impossible if they were illegally excavated and sold on the black market.