LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — The discovery that two paintings held by a New York couple had been stolen from a Bolivian church in 2002 has ignited a search for 10 other colonial-era paintings that were taken in the theft, one the largest such crimes in the country's history.
The paintings, "Escape to Egypt" and "Virgin of Candelaria," were found in the collection of Richard and Roberta Huber, who contacted Bolivian officials after learning the two large works had been reported stolen.
The paintings, each about 6 feet (2 meters) high and more than 300 years old, were among 12 ecclesiastical artworks stolen in June 2002 from the San Martin church in the southern city of Potosi. Wilma Blazz, a city prosecutor in Potosi, said Thursday authorities would reopen their search for the items and would seek help from Brazil.
The Hubers had purchased the paintings legally in 2003 from an art gallery in Sao Paulo and restored them. Their origin came to light in 2012 as the Philadelphia Museum of Art prepared to mount an exhibit of the couple's collection and checked lists of artwork reported stolen.
While the restoration work had altered the paintings' appearance, Huber said Thursday, "I felt that they were probably the same ones."
The process of working with various agencies to return the paintings has been slow, Huber said by phone in New York. While the couple awaits instructions from Bolivia on how to proceed, the paintings currently hang in the living room of their New York home.
"It's not our custom to keep stolen goods," he said.
"We bought them because we liked them and, so, we will miss them."
The San Martin church was built in the mid-1600s by indigenous slaves in Potosi, which was a key center of silver mining about 250 miles (410 kilometers) south of La Paz, and it became a museum for colonial-era art
"After the robbery (in 2002), we had to hang replicas on the walls," the Rev. Omar Barrenechea told The Associated Press.
Bolivian officials say more than 400 objects of art have been stolen from churches in recent years. They include paintings, decorative silverwork, polished gold and silver altar pieces and gem-encrusted jewelry.
AP writer Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.