Grave Robber: A Love Story

It was odd hearing his voice on the telephone after I’d seen him on television the night before. He was one of those “Antiques Roadshow” experts in a show out of Arizona, and he was evaluating a handsome red, white and black Navaho chief’s blanket. I knew his name because he worked for an auction house in Boston, and I had made a phone appointment to talk to him in the morning about pre-Columbian artifacts.

Back in the 1970s, when I was in my early 30s, I ran away from home, my family and a crumbling marriage with the partially hatched idea of going to the Galapagos Islands. I landed in Guayaquil, Ecuador, a place I couldn’t even pronounce back then. I couldn’t speak Spanish. I was short, scared and wearing a T-shirt that showed too much cleavage for a Catholic country.

It was the age of Second Wave feminism, and our marching slogan was to become the man we wanted to marry; in other words, we would carve out our own lives, not live someone else’s. How was I to know that the man I wanted to become was Jack Kerouac, and I’d be on the road for the next seven years?

Eventually, my adventure involved a bit of grave robbing. I’m not too proud of that now, but in 1976, I didn’t believe in ghosts or national treasure. I just wanted to keep traveling.

I bought pre-Columbian ceramics, textiles, jewelry and artifacts from a secret village tucked away in the Atacama Desert, far outside of Lima, Peru; I wrapped the stuff in newspaper and brought it to the United States. I kept everything but the ceramics, which I dropped off at Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet in New York. Back then, they didn’t care about ghosts or national treasures, either. They auctioned everything I gave them and sent the checks to me in Lima, and I’d be back on the road again.

I kept the jewelry, textiles and artifacts because they were beautiful and because it thrilled me to hold in my hands things that had been made and used by people who lived thousands of years before I did. My collection contained fragile lace woven centuries before Europeans practiced the art; a fragment of cotton woven with a pattern of birds holding human skulls in their mouths; brightly colored tiny warriors marching at the edge of an ancient poncho; a coca bag with fringe; a metal knife in the shape of a monkey; a woven basket full of weaving implements; an emerald that someone had drilled a very long time ago by rubbing a pointed implement between their hands; and a mother-of-pearl bead in the shape of a pelican. I liked to imagine the people who last used each artifact—how they had lived and how they died.

Even after I stopped traveling—I never made it to the Galapagos—I treasured these things as a reminder of a time when I could hold magic in my hands, but eventually, they ended up in my attic in Vermont, just waiting to be loved. And by “loved,” I mean sold to someone who would love them.

So I contacted the antique dealer to see if he would auction off my collection.

He wanted to know where I’d gotten these things. It brought back a lot of memories.

***

After about six months on the road, mostly in Ecuador, I was staying in the capital city of Quito. Chuck Lane picked me up one day at a fountain in the old part of town, where I was leafing through my copy of “South American Handbook.” His line was that he knew his way around South America because he’d been thrown out of the Peace Corps for smuggling and was there anything he could help me with?

He was a good-looking guy, tall and big-boned, with sandy hair and an easy manner. I later found out that he was 24, 10 years younger than I was. There were a lot of these guys on the road; a few years later, I would recognize them as “my type”—tall, blond, tender, blue-eyed 24-year-olds. After a while, I started calling them “my B-24s.” We’d have adventures together for a few days, make passionate love at night and then say goodbye—perfect love affairs, short and very sweet. Chuck, bless him, was my first.

Chuck was hot for me, for sure—I was a rarity, a young American woman traveling alone—but soon, I was hot for him, too. To him, I was a just silly tourist who would be leaving South America in a few weeks. So over dinner one night, he told me about his perfect scam.

There was this town in the Peruvian desert, he said, a few hours outside of Lima, where the natives, whenever they dug a hole to shit, uncovered a grave.

The graves dated back to the Chancay civilization, he told me. It had thrived between 1000 and 1450 A.D., before the rise of the Incas. Because it was in the desert, where for thousands of years rainfall has been so minimal as to be unmeasurable, the bodies in the graves were mummified, perfectly preserved. So were their clothes, jewels, ceramics, weaving equipment and the other things that were buried with them. It was spooky to think about.

The town was built on sand, Chuck said. It had no sidewalks, no roads, no running water and barely any electricity. The houses were made out of palm thatch woven into mats and roped together to make walls. The roofs were also thatch.

The natives were poor, living in the middle of nowhere in the desert, miles away from the Pacific. Dried fish provided their sole source of protein, he said. They weren’t interested in historical preservation. They dug up the bodies, unwrapped the cloth, sewed the largest pieces they could cut away onto sheets of blue paper, rethreaded the beads on fishing line and sold it all.

Only five people knew the location of this tiny town, Chuck whispered dramatically, and for the past two years, he had been going there as often as he could. He’d been buying everything he could get his hands on, taking it back to the States and selling it. When the Peace Corps found out, they threw him out of the Corps, but that didn’t stop Chuck from returning again and again to South America.

Two weeks earlier, he said, he had been in a bar in San Francisco, talking about Peru with some guy who turned out to be an art dealer. He took one look at what Chuck was selling, gave him $3,000, bought him a ticket and sent him back down to Peru. On his way back, he stopped in Ecuador to visit some former Peace Corps friends, and that was how I got to spend a few days with him.

We went back to his hotel, and he showed me what he was carrying: pieces of lace and tie-dyed cotton, old and dusty but with some of the color and detail still fresh, and some of it stained brown from blood or maybe body juices. Many of the cloth pieces, even the lace, had cats’ faces and crabs and pelicans woven into them; after he pointed them out, I could see them clearly. Hundreds of strands of gorgeous bead necklaces, some red, some rosy, some orangey, which he called “corales” or “conchas,” were made from Pacific Ocean shells. Some of the necklaces had turquoise and quartz crystal beads mixed in, and they all had little objects dangling from the center. Chuck said these were drop weights from weaving spindles. He showed me little green metal devices that were really copper tweezers, which the ancients had used to pull out any stray beard hairs. He had pottery shards and some wonderful dolls made out of cloth from the graves. It was thrilling to touch the textiles, to run my fingers through the bags of cool shell beads, to see the wealth of a lost civilization spread before me on a sagging bed in a cheap hotel.

He bragged. I listened closely and made mental notes.

He told me how to find the town. It was a complicated story about finding a particular bus station in Lima, then changing buses in Chancay, getting a rickety little jitney into the middle of the desert and finally walking over a tiny bridge that consisted of two logs close together.

You had to be clever, he laughed, because sometimes the natives made fake necklaces. Some of the corales looked like macaroni bits, so when the natives got greedy, they dyed and strung pasta. If he had any doubts, he sucked on the necklace, he said. But it wasn’t a big problem because most of the natives were open and honest, and there was so much of the stuff in that town that you could buy beads by the kilo.

“Isn’t this illegal?” I asked.

It was illegal in Peru to buy and transport such material outside the country, Chuck said, but not to bring the stuff into the United States. According to Chuck, America had no national treasures treaty with Peru.

I worshipfully helped him fold the cloth and put the beads back in bags, and when the bed was clear, we made spooky grave love on it.

The sex between us was so good that he checked out of his hotel and into my “residencial” as my instant husband. There the sex progressed to Olympic quality, and orgasms fell off my body like stars.

The religious imagery of Ecuador was starting to seep into my subconscious, and with Chuck’s large, warm body wrapped around me, this little Jewish girl started to have mystical visions. First, in a mountainous region that was clearly Ecuador but was the color of Judea, a many-armed Indian deity, made of mother-of-pearl, wheeled up through the mountains without using its arms or legs. It stopped in front of me with a message about loving people more, or lying about loving them less.

Then up wheeled a plaster statute of Jesus with his open, radiating heart. His head was bent lovingly, and he was surrounded by people and animals who loved him so deeply that to sustain this love, he didn’t even have to appear but could be represented by a tacky plaster cast. I was standing outside the circle of worshipers, and the message was that I must find a way to love Jesus without asking him to do anything for me. Such power, beauty and love were transmitted to me that I woke up feeling blessed, graced, translucent.

I woke Chuck up and made love to him, opening myself to him, taking him lovingly in. I don’t know if he could tell the difference between this clear, direct, loving openness and the usual screwing around.

***

Then Chuck went back to the States. I never saw him again. That’s the way of the road: You share intense experiences with people who will soon disappear from your life. And that’s the way you want it. You can be open and vulnerable precisely because they will never come back again.

I continued to travel. One night about six months later, in the Amazon jungle, the boat I was traveling on hit a log and sank. Rescued by a tugboat, I stood on the deck at midnight, watching my passport, my clothes and my money racing away down the Rio Putumayo. Then I remembered Chuck’s story. It took four miserable months to hitchhike my way out of the jungle, but when I finally washed up in La Paz, beat and broke, I wired my parents for $400 and hopped on a bus to Lima.

The Peruvian currency had just been devalued, and people were angry. During one riot, I was chased across the main square of Lima by a tank. The beautiful Peruvian “soles”—copper coins embossed with graceful llamas—were suddenly worth more as metal than as currency. The Peruvians collected them and shipped them to Ecuador to be melted down. Within a few days, there were no coins in the city. It became impossible to buy anything that cost less than five soles, the smallest bill. Bus drivers gave Chiclets and sucking candy as change.

It was in this desperate economic climate that I followed Chuck’s directions. I took a bus to Chancay and then a jitney into the desert. I stood in the bare scrub for a while, and then children appeared out of nowhere. Calling to me, they led me over a tiny bridge made of two logs and into a shantytown.

The children’s cries alerted the adults. They came running, dangling what, to my eyes, appeared to be the wealth of Inca kings. It was the same kind of jewelry, ceramics and cloth I had seen in Chuck’s bags—and in the Lima Gold Museum the day before. It was like meeting Atahualpa, the Inca king, face to face.

I bought necklaces, textiles and colorful dolls made from pre-Columbian textile scraps. I bought ancient ceramic whistles in the shape of people and animals. I bought ceramic bowls and statues. I bought pelican beads made out of mother-of-pearl, with inlaid coral and turquoise—so tiny that four of them could fit on my thumbnail, but each one with four holes for sewing it onto cloth. What kind of civilization had the ancients developed, I wondered, that allowed them time to practice this delicate craftsmanship?

I spent every cent I had. When the haggling was over—by then, I spoke market Spanish, and body language and gestures went a long way in the countryside—and there were smiles all around, the women told me that what they really wanted was American costume jewelry and underpants with the days of the week embroidered on them. And the men? American booze. They asked if I would bring this stuff back to them and trade for artifacts.

I took my treasures back to Lima and spent hours figuring out how to wrap the ceramics so they wouldn’t break. Then I headed for Ecuador by bus to meet an old lover in Quito. As I came closer to the border, I grew more and more paranoid. I was smuggling archeological treasures. I also had changed all my money on the black market, thus violating the government’s currency laws—and helping out the Peruvians, who needed the hard American cash.

At that point, I formulated “Joyce’s Law”: After you’ve decided to do something illegal or weird, give up on the worrying. No matter what nightmares you imagine, reality will be different. And anyway, it’s out of your control.

At the border, nothing happened—except that the immigration man said, “I won’t let you through; you’re too pretty. I want you to stay with me.”

***

Once back in New York, I took my treasures straight to Sotheby’s, and I was in business. For the next five years, I had a routine. I flew from New York to Florida, where my parents were living in a retirement complex. I stopped at Kmart for costume jewelry and ladies underpants and scarves, picked up Scotch at the duty-free store in the airport, landed in Lima, stashed my purchases in a friendly hotel and hit the road. When, after six or seven months, I had spent all but $500 of Sotheby’s money on travel and adventure, I went back to Lima, picked up my stuff and went to the desert.

It never failed—little children always materialized out of the sand and led me into town. Their parents and I would sit on logs while chickens moved among us, pecking. We traded earrings for beads, underwear for textiles and whiskey for ceramics.

Over time, I watched that little town grow: Woven huts were replaced by cement-block houses, paths in the sand by sidewalks, frond roofs by red tile. In time, ladies underwear from Kmart wasn’t good enough; the women wanted Chanel. They were prospering. They were sending their kids to college to learn about pre-Columbian civilizations. They were serving as a clearinghouse for grave robbers from all over Peru—it was no longer just Chancay artifacts they were selling, but complex, colorful and ancient Tiahuanaco and Mochica pieces, as well.

And they weren’t the only ones in the business. There were times when I could go to the back door of the Gold Museum in Lima after hours and buy ancient ceramics off the shelves. Peru was dirt poor. Everyone wanted dollars. Everyone had an angle.

The last time I visited that town, a young girl in the dunes told me, “You should see the cemetery. Holes, holes, holes. Only holes.”

What put me out of business wasn’t the holes. Or a conscience. It wasn’t being priced out of the trade. It wasn’t the competition from gringos who took the business much more seriously than I did. It was, as always, politics. The United States suddenly recognized Peru’s national treasures act.

In 1980, instead of being passed through U.S. customs by bored inspectors, I was stopped. My luggage was searched, and I was taken into a small room and given a harsh lesson about the harm I was doing by robbing a country of its archeological treasures. I was such a small-time operator that they let me go with my last shipment intact. Later, when the big exporters came through, they were busted and their shipments confiscated. And when the really big operators arrived, customs not only confiscated their shipments but went to their homes and took their personal collections.

Not long after that, the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured a big pre-Columbian show—gold, ceramics, textiles, dolls, artifacts. I read in Time Magazine that the show had been curated from all the confiscated materials. By that time, I was living in Panama and teaching English as a second language to Japanese businessmen, but I happened to be visiting New York and caught the show. The artifacts were like old friends. Many on display were far more valuable than anything I had ever held in my hands. But there they were, behind glass, with little signs explaining them to visitors. When the exhibition was over, according to Time, the artifacts were sent back to Peru, where they belonged.

***

The auction guy listened to my story and rejected my collection. It turned out he’d recently accepted for auction another collection that was remarkably similar to mine: textile fragments sewed onto blue paper, dolls, beads, artifacts, weaving baskets chock-full of implements. He said there was a lot of this kind of material on the market.

Whispering, Chuck had told me that only five people in the world knew the location of that town. Of course, over time, I had watched the town grow and prosper as more and more antique dealers from Europe and the United States found it. But now, I see that from the beginning, instead of being on the hip, cutting edge of adventure, I was just one of many, many people who took that bus, changed to that jitney, went into that desert and met those smiling, waving children. They might as well have been running tour buses out there, because there’s such a glut of this material on the market today. Even the auction guy had some of it. He told me that he and his wife had been in Peru in 1980, and they had brought back the same kinds of artifacts I was trying to auction off.

So it doesn’t look as if I’m going to make any money in the near future selling my pre-Columbian artifacts. But I’ll always have the memories of those trips into the desert, and they are far more precious to me than lace woven a thousand years ago in the deserts of Peru. Maybe I can sell them, instead.

About the Author

Joyce Marcel

Joyce Marcel has been an award-winning Vermont journalist for twenty-three years. This story is taken from an unpublished memoir, selected chapters of which are available online.

View Essays
Holiday Sale

Save up to 75% on magazines, subscriptions, books, & merch!

Sale ends at 12 pm Eastern on Friday, December 10.