City storing millions of dollars of antiquities, free of charge

Larry Barker

It’s all quite hush-hush: Rare antiquities worth tens of millions of dollars stashed in a nondescript government building under lock and key. Could it be looted treasure? It’s a tale reminiscent of an Indiana Jones adventure complete with mysterious foreign benefactors, international intrigue and priceless artifacts hidden away.

We’re talking about massive carved stone sculptures that once graced the palatial tombs of mighty Imperial Emperors in China and Korea hundreds of years ago. Because of their monumental size and exorbitant cultural value, the museum-quality relics are rarely seen outside of Asia. Fourteen of them, however, have been hidden away in an Albuquerque storeroom for years. 

To understand what happened we need to go back. In 2006 a mysterious Japanese businessman named Hitoshi Hoshi approached then Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez with an unusual proposition. As a gesture of friendship, Mr. Hoshi offered to loan the City of Albuquerque his priceless collection of rare Chinese and Korean antiquities.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hoshi shipped his grandiose artifact collection weighing some 85 tons from Japan to New Mexico. The artifacts were set up in an unmarked building at Albuquerque’s Botanical Garden.

“It was a big deal to get them here,” Retired Botanical Garden Manager Catherine Hubbard told KRQE in 2014. “They came on a flatbed truck. They were crated, and we got a forklift to get them off the truck. We had to take down some of the windows in our showroom just to get them in,” Hubbard said.

At a public ceremony in 2006, Mayor Chavez thanked Mr. Hoshi for loaning his collection to the city. Asian antiquities that once graced the foothills of Mt. Fuji, surrounded by Japanese cherry trees and a solemn cemetery, now rest in the shadow of the Sandias, surrounded by desert cactus and a zoo train.

That was twelve years ago. 

Today, Mr. Hoshi’s artifacts are in storage on City of Albuquerque property. Peer through smudged windows and you’ll catch a glimpse of regal Asian carvings worth tens of millions of dollars unceremoniously stored in a locked city building gathering dust.

  • 1 Shrine (6 pieces)
  • 1 Table
  • 2 Guardian Dogs (4 pieces)
  • 2 Big Towers (4 pieces)
  • 2 Small Towers (4 pieces)
  • 2 Civil Offices (2 pieces)
  • 2 Big Military Officers (2 pieces) and
  • 2 Small Military Offices (2 pieces). 

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 Japanese art patron. For example, why would Mr. Hoshi ship a treasure trove of rare Asian antiquities from Japan to a botanic garden in the American Southwest? There are clues 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 hit up the Mayor’s Office for a $15 million personal loan offering his Asian art collection as collateral. The deal was never seriously considered.

There’s more. At the same time Albuquerque was displaying his prized relics at the Botanic 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.

Once the valuable antiquities were uncrated in Albuquerque, BioPark employees weren’t quite sure what to do with them. 

First, Chinese and Korean artifacts don’t fit in with the mission of the BioPark. Second, nobody knew anything about the Asian relics; they arrived without any documentation. And third, there’s the question of liability. Because no one bothered to arrange for insurance, taxpayers will be on the hook if something happens to the valuable art collection.

“Since they were on loan to us, they were on our property, they were in our care, the city would be responsible for any damages,” says retired BioPark Manager Rick Janser.

“I believe they valued them in the tens of millions of dollars. And that’s not something that we really wanted to assume under the city liability,” Janser says.

The mystery behind the intricately carved monoliths goes back hundreds of years to abandoned tombs hidden away on the Asian continent. According to Hitoshi Hoshi’s narrative, a Japanese railroad tycoon named Kaichiro Nezu “acquired” the stone relics from Chinese and Korean archeological sites in 1937 during the Japanese occupation of those countries. Hoshi says he bought 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 through an Inspection of Public Records Act request, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched an investigation into the Hoshi art collection.

Federal investigators determined the artifacts on loan to the City of Albuquerque may have been looted or stolen in the 1930s from ancient tomb sites in China and Korea. The Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage told Investigators, “China has never allowed the export of such items.”

The Korean Cultural Heritage Administration wrote, “…the Korean statues within the collection are the cultural property of Korea.”

“I think that the city needs to be very worried. There are a lot of issues surrounding the statues that are unresolved,” says UNM Maxwell Museum Interim Director David Phillips. Phillips is familiar with the Hoshi artifacts.

“Part of museum ethics is that you do not possess objects that you think might have been stolen,” Phillips says. 

“The problem with these pieces is the chain of title is mostly lost. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know quite how they got to Japan. But there is the possibility that these objects were acquired in violation of the Hague Convention, and therefore we’re dealing with a war crime. It has been a war crime for more than a hundred years to loot a country’s cultural treasures,” according to Phillips.

Due to the unknown origin of the stone artifacts, city administrators decided in 2010 to return them to their Tokyo based owner. Mr. Hoshi promised to have the massive artifacts shipped back to Japan. That was eight years ago. Today, the valuable stone relics are still sitting unclaimed at the city’s Botanic Gardens.

In fact, for nearly a decade the city has been storing tens of millions of dollars in privately owned antiquities that it doesn’t want and can’t get rid of. Despite scores of letters, emails, and meetings, Hoshi family members have refused to take possession of the valuable relics. No one at the city has seen or heard from Hitoshi Hoshi himself in years.

In 2014, Albuquerque officials planned legal action to force the removal of the Hoshi artifacts from city property. A complaint titled “City of Albuquerque vs. 16 Asian Stone Sculptures” was drafted but never filed in court.

Last year, Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Director Dana Feldman threatened to have the artifacts moved from locked storage to display at the zoo’s Asian elephant exhibit. However, the incoming Keller administration decided not to put the statues on public display.

“As a taxpaying private citizen now it just infuriates me that my taxes are going to store these priceless antiquities,” says retired BioPark Manager Rick Janser. “I just think that the city has been housing millions of dollars of antiquities free of charge.”

“I do not see a benefit at this point for the City of Albuquerque to continue (storing) these statues, which is why we are working diligently to move them off of city property,” says Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Director Shelle Sanchez.

Through the years, Albuquerque Bio Park officials have met repeatedly with Hoshi family members in an effort to negotiate the return of the art collection to Japan. However, Hoshi representatives have failed to provide a timetable for removal of the loaned artifacts.

Now, the Albuquerque City Attorney’s Office has served a formal “Notice of Abandonment” on Hitoshi Hoshi. Citing state statutes, the City Attorney has given the wealthy Japanese businessman 65 days to remove his loaned art collection from city property or the ancient carvings will be deemed ‘abandoned.’ If Mr. Hoshi fails to claim his property by the end of October, Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Department will assume title to the priceless Asian stone carvings.

Hitoshi Hoshi’s granddaughter, Eri Hoshi, who lives part-time in Albuquerque, has acted as a family representative for the Asian relics. Eri Hoshi did not respond to KRQE’s requests for comment.

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