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Venezuela sued in a U.S. court over Simon Bolivar artifacts

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Thu October 18, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ricardo DeVengoechea provided artifacts that helped a Venezuelan investigation
  • DeVengoechea let Venezuela use DNA samples of Bolivar's hair to confirm his remains
  • But they never returned the sample or other artifacts to DeVengoechea
  • He is now suing Venezuela in a U.S. court

(CNN) -- Five years ago, the Venezuelan government had a mystery to solve, and a Florida man who held the key to unlocking it readily offered a helping hand.

President Hugo Chavez had doubts about whether the great South American hero Simon Bolivar had died of tuberculosis, as most historical accounts state, or if he had been poisoned. An eventual test came back inconclusive, but so did the status of a "treasure trove" of artifacts that Ricardo DeVengoechea had lent the government in its investigation.

DeVengoechea is now suing Venezuela in a U.S. federal court, fighting to reclaim the valued items.

When Venezuela decided to investigate Bolivar's death, a necessary step would be to confirm that the remains the government would exhume indeed belonged to the revered hero.

DeVengoechea, a photographer in Orlando, could help Venezuela out with that.

His ancestors were one of Colombia's founding families with ties to Bolivar, and had passed down to him a small collection worthy of a museum: a one-of-a-kind medal from a grateful Peru, signed letters and, most unique, a lock of Bolivar's hair.

His collection, particularly the DNA from the hair, could confirm Bolivar's remains, and for a brief period in 2007, Venezuela treated DeVengoechea like a king.

A private jet flew him and his collection to Venezuela, where government officials greeted him. For a month, he accompanied the team of researchers who examined his artifacts. When he recalled that he had more artifacts at home, the Venezuelan government promptly purchased him round-trip commercial airfare to go retrieve them.

DeVengoechea returned home, and as the months turned into years, his contacts with the Venezuelans diminished, according to a lawsuit filed in a Miami court.

The Florida man didn't learn about the conclusion of the tests until he read about it in the press in July 2011, the lawsuit says.

The Venezuelan government had agreed to return the collection, but in late 2011, DeVengoechea found his calls going unanswered and his letters to the Venezuelan Embassy unreturned.

DeVengoechea's suit says that Venezuela stole his belongings and must return the collection to him.

"Venezuela's refusal to return the DeVengoechea Collection is a clear act of expropriation of DeVengoechea's personal property in violation of international law," the lawsuit states. "These items were taken from their rightful owner by the government."

The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington did not immediately comment on the suit.

Bolivar gave the items in the collection to DeVengoechea's great-great-grandfather, Joaquin de Mier, the lawsuit states.

In addition to the lock of hair and Liberation Medal awarded by Peru, the collection also includes epaulets from the military uniform of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Bolivar met in France.

Most historians say that tuberculosis killed Bolivar, who died in 1830 at the age of 47.

In 1819, Bolivar founded Gran Colombia, a federation of what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. He is credited with spreading democratic principles in Latin America.

The exhumation was broadcast on television, and Chavez admitted to crying as the remains were recovered.

"Bolivar is alive. Let us not see him as a dead man and let us not see him as a skeleton. He is like lightning, like a sacred fire," he said then.

With the national anthem playing in the background, a group of scientists wearing white coats rolled up a black cloth, revealing a skeleton on the table below.

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