LONDON – Fashioned from a sheet of embossed gold and centuries old, a prized headdress renowned as Peru's equivalent of the "Mona Lisa" has been seized by police.
With a feline face at its center and eight curving tentacles, the ancient artifact — which collectors claim could be among Peru's most valuable treasures and worth close to $2 million — has been kept from public view for as along as a decade. Police said Thursday that it was found hidden in a dusty cabinet of a London law firm.
Specialist art detectives seized the antiquity in a raid on the central London lawyer's office after a lengthy investigation into looted works, the capital's Metropolitan police said.
Officers said the golden headdress was made in the image of an ancient sea god and could date back to around 700 A.D., making it a prized example of artwork by the Mochica civilization that inhabited northern Peru.
Detective Constable Michelle Roycroft said the work had been seized on Monday, and that officers hoped to hand the valuable over to Peruvian authorities at a ceremony at London's Scotland Yard on Aug. 29.
Michel van Rijn, a London-based art dealer, alerted officers to the existence of the piece after he was asked to facilitate its sale and realized it had likely been stolen. Rijn said the artifact was looted from an archaeological dig at a royal tomb in 1988 and later stolen from the office of an art dealer in Peru in 1996.
A London lawyer had been holding the piece for several months for a client and was unaware it was stolen, police said. Officers added that the law firm did not know how the client had acquired the work.
Roycroft said the seizure was hugely significant and that inquiries were ongoing in Britain and Peru to trace similar valuable works, but said British authorities had filed no arrest warrants in the theft of the headdress.
"Without a doubt this is a very important moment in the worldwide war against illicit art and the looting of my country," Walter Alva, of Peru's Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, said in a statement.