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Hand-Carved Skulls Returned to Indonesia by Federal Officials

By Amy Zimmer | May 16, 2011 3:41pm

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

UPPER EAST SIDE — Federal officials turned over five hand-carved human skulls dating from the 18th and 19th centuries to Indonesian authorities Monday at a repatriation ceremony at the consulate's East 68th Street townhouse.

The skulls are to be flown to Indonesia Monday night and will be welcomed back to the country with another handing over ceremony in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, on Wednesday, officials said.

Officers from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection came across the artifacts — believed to be "headhunting" trophy skulls from the Dayak Tribe of the Indonesian island of Borneo — at a mail facility in Newark, N.J., in August. They were shipped in a package from Bali with a declared value of under $5, which raised suspicions.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations took possession of the skulls and launched an investigation, calling in an independent art appraiser who valued each object at $3,000 to $5,000.

"It was not surprising," said Mona Forman, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations. "As you can see, each item is intricately decorated and one-of-a-kind."

Any shipment with a value of more $2,000 must be formally declared at the border, officials said, explaining why the skulls were seized and returned directly to Indonesian authorities.

Returning these "unique" artifacts, Forman said, "serves as a reminder that items of historical and cultural significance carry a value far greater than what can be measured in dollars and cents."

Investigators said their probe was ongoing and would not disclose where the skulls came from or where they were heading before being intercepted.

Acting Consul General of the Republic of Indonesia, Zahermann Muabezi, called the skulls an important "treasure" and said they would be given to an Indonesian institution that would preserve them.

The skulls are expected to be given to the country's minister of art and tourism and will likely be returned to the tribe in Borneo where they hailed from and placed in a museum there, Indonesian officials said.

This is the first time Forman's agency has returned items to Indonesia. It has sent back more than 2,400 items to countries around the world since 2007, including art from Iraq and a bookmark used by Adolf Hitler, she said.