Everything is quiet enough: rare antiques worth tens of millions of dollars hidden in an indefinable government building under lock and key. Could it be looted treasure? It’s a tale reminiscent of an Indiana Jones adventure with mysterious foreign benefactors, international intrigues, and priceless hidden artifacts.
We are talking about the massive carved stone sculptures that once graced the palatial tombs of powerful imperial emperors in China and Korea hundreds of years ago. Due to their monumental size and exorbitant cultural value, museum-quality relics are rarely seen outside of Asia. Fourteen of them, however, have been hidden in an Albuquerque pantry for years.
To understand what happened, we have to go back. In 2006, a mysterious Japanese businessman named Hitoshi Hoshi approached the mayor of Albuquerque, Martin Chavez, with an unusual proposal. As a sign of friendship, Hoshi offered to loan the city of Albuquerque his precious collection of rare Chinese and Korean antiques.
Soon after, Mr. Hoshi shipped his awe-inspiring artifact collection weighing some 85 tons from Japan to New Mexico. The artifacts were installed in an anonymous building in the Albuquerque Botanical Garden.
“It was a big deal to get them here,” said Catherine Hubbard, retired botanical garden director at KRQE in 2014. “They came on a flatbed truck. They were crated and we had a forklift to get them off the truck. We had to take some of the windows in our showroom apart just to get them in, ”Hubbard said.
During a public ceremony in 2006, Mayor Chavez thanked Mr. Hoshi for loaning his collection to the city. Asian antiques that once adorned the foothills of Mt. Fuji, surrounded by Japanese cherry trees and a solemn cemetery, now rests in the shade of the Sandias, surrounded by desert cacti and a zoo train.
It was twelve years ago.
Today, Mr. Hoshi’s artifacts are stored on the property of the City of Albuquerque. Peek through the smeared windows and you’ll spot majestic Asian sculptures worth tens of millions of dollars unceremoniously stored in a locked city building gathering dust.
- 1 sanctuary (6 rooms)
- 1 table
- 2 guard dogs (4 pieces)
- 2 large towers (4 pieces)
- 2 small towers (4 pieces)
- 2 civil offices (2 rooms)
- 2 senior military officers (2 pieces) and
- 2 small military offices (2 rooms).
What happened? City officials admit they may have been a bit hasty in accepting Hitoshi Hoshi’s loan. Even today, little is known about the wealthy patron of Japanese art. For example, why would Mr. Hoshi ship a treasure trove of rare Asian antiques from Japan to a botanical garden in the American Southwest? There are indications that Mr. Hoshi’s motive may have been more than just a “gesture of friendship”.
Documents obtained by KRQE News 13 show shortly after the artifacts arrived in Albuquerque, Mr Hoshi asked the mayor’s office for a personal loan of $ 15 million offering his collection of Asian art as collateral. The deal was never seriously considered.
There is more. At the same time that Albuquerque displayed his precious relics at the Botanical Garden, Mr. Hoshi quietly put them up for sale through a Canadian art broker, Maynard’s Fine Art & Antiques. The asking price? $ 91,000,000.
With the precious antiques not crating in Albuquerque, BioPark employees weren’t sure what to do with them.
First, the Chinese and Korean artifacts do not match the mission of the BioPark. Second, no one knew anything about the Asian relics; they arrived without any documentation. And third, there is the question of accountability. Because no one bothered to purchase insurance, taxpayers will be on the spot if anything happens to the precious art collection.
“Since they were loaned to us, they were on our property, they were our responsibility, the city would be responsible for any damage,” says Rick Janser, retired director of BioPark.
“I think they valued them at tens of millions of dollars. And that’s not something we really wanted to take on under the responsibility of the city, ”says Janser.
The mystery behind the intricately carved monoliths dates back hundreds of years in abandoned tombs hidden on the Asian continent. According to Hitoshi Hoshi’s account, a Japanese railroad magnate named Kaichiro Nezu “acquired” the stone relics of Chinese and Korean archaeological sites in 1937 during the Japanese occupation of those countries. Hoshi says he purchased the collection from the Tokyo-based Nezu Museum in 1961. Records documenting the origin and sale of the statues were destroyed in a fire years ago.
According to documents obtained in connection with an Inspection of Public Records Act request, the US Department of Homeland Security has launched an investigation into the Hoshi art collection.
Federal investigators have determined that artifacts on loan to the city of Albuquerque may have been looted or stolen in the 1930s from ancient graves in China and Korea. China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage told investigators, “China has never allowed the export of such items.”
The Korean Cultural Heritage Administration wrote: “… Korean statues in the collection are the cultural property of Korea.”
“I think the city must be very worried. Many issues surrounding the statues remain unresolved, ”says UNM Maxwell Museum Acting Director David Phillips. Phillips knows about Hoshi artifacts.
“Part of the ethics of museums is that you don’t own items that you think might have been stolen,” says Phillips.
“The problem with these coins is that the chain of title is largely lost. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t really know how they got to Japan. But it is possible that these objects were acquired in violation of the Hague Convention, and therefore we are dealing with a war crime. It has been a war crime for over a hundred years to plunder a country’s cultural treasures, ”said Phillips.
Due to the unknown origin of the stone objects, city administrators decided in 2010 to return them to their Tokyo-based owner. Mr. Hoshi has promised to return the massive artifacts to Japan. It was eight years ago. Today, the precious stone relics are still unclaimed in the city’s botanical gardens.
In fact, for nearly a decade, the city has been storing tens of millions of dollars in private antiques it doesn’t want and can’t get rid of. Despite dozens of letters, emails and meetings, members of the Hoshi family refused to take possession of the precious relics. No one in the city has seen or heard Hitoshi Hoshi himself for years.
In 2014, Albuquerque officials planned legal action to force the removal of the Hoshi artifacts from city property. A lawsuit titled “City of Albuquerque Against 16 Asian Stone Carvings” was drafted but was never filed in court.
Last year, Albuquerque Cultural Services Director Dana Feldman threatened to move the artifacts from locked storage to display at the zoo’s Asian elephant exhibit. However, the new Keller administration decided not to display the statues to the public.
“As a private citizen taxpayer now, it infuriates me that my taxes are going to store these priceless antiques,” says Rick Janser, retired director of BioPark. “I just think the city has housed millions of dollars in antiques for free.”
“I see no benefit at this point for the City of Albuquerque to continue to (store) these statues, which is why we are working diligently to move them off city property,” said Shelle Sanchez, Director of Albuquerque cultural services.
Over the years, officials at Albuquerque Bio Park have met with members of the Hoshi family on several occasions in an effort to negotiate the return of the art collection to Japan. However, Hoshi’s representatives did not provide a timeline for the removal of the loaned artifacts.
Now the Albuquerque City Attorney’s Office has served a “Notice of AbandonmentOn Hitoshi Hoshi. Citing state statutes, the city attorney gave the wealthy Japanese businessman 65 days to remove his loaned art collection from city property, otherwise the ancient sculptures will be considered ‘abandoned’ ‘. If Mr. Hoshi does not claim his ownership by the end of October, Albuquerque’s Department of Cultural Services will assume the title of the priceless Asian stone carvings.
Hitoshi Hoshi’s granddaughter Eri Hoshi, who lives part-time in Albuquerque, acted as the family representative for the Asian Relics. Eri Hoshi did not respond to KRQE’s requests for comment.