In among the child pornography, illegal drugs and other contraband stored in Salt Lake City's U.S. Customs evidence vault are 34 icons depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and various Russian Orthodox saints.
Shrouded in bubble-wrap and towels and stuffed in footlockers, the colorful religious paintings have been stored there for six years but became the official property of the U.S. government only in February.Soon they'll be headed home to Russia, ending a strange and not entirely documented odyssey in a state known within the predominant Mormon culture as Zion.
Once slated for the auction block in a purported fund-raiser for Mormons in Russia, the icons have been displayed at an Orem shopping mall, kept for more than a year in cardboard boxes in a gallery owner's back bedroom and housed for weeks in the home of a Russian literature professor.
"Hopefully, in the early part of June, schedules will be coordinated where they can be returned among much fanfare," said U.S. Customs special agent Don Daufenbach.
The icons will be turned over to the Russian government and eventually to the Russian Orthodox Church.
"I hope that everything goes well," said Father Vladimir, the New York-based secretary for Paul, Bishop of Zaraisk. "I think it's going to be very symbolic and probably be a very interesting case."
It was Paul who sent a letter to Customs in 1996 expressing interest in the icons, said Daufenbach. He is a vicar of the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and administrator of the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States and Mexico.
The Russian government made a formal request for their return, according to court documents.
Marc Garrison, who once owned Aspen Books in Murray, brought the icons to the United States. The publishing company is out of business, and Garrison could not be reached at his last known address in Gilbert, Ariz.
He said in 1993 newspaper articles that the icons were worth $3.2 million and he planned to sell them to benefit a nonprofit organization helping the Russians and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia.
Instead, he aroused suspicion.
The U.S. Customs office received a half dozen calls about Garrison, an unusually high number, and began investigating, said Daufenbach.
That's when Customs seized the 34 icons, which had been at a Salt Lake art gallery.
It wasn't until 1998, however, that the U.S. Attorney's Office formally charged Garrison. He was charged civilly with failing to obtain a permit from the Russian Ministry of Culture to take the icons out of the country, said Bill Ryan, an assistant U.S. attorney.
Russian law prohibits the export of any icon made before 1945 from the country without proper authorization. A Russian expert in iconography, Alexander Moskalionov, verified that all the icons were made before 1945, according to court documents.
Garrison, who did not answer the government's complaint, was ordered in February to officially forfeit to the U.S. government the icons and a number of other items, including 15 Matrushka dolls and 18 Soviet flags.
"They should give them back," said University of Utah Russian literature professor Gene Fitzgerald, who had been asked by Garrison to authenticate the icons in 1993.
Fitzgerald is known locally as a lecturer on Russian culture.
When Garrison asked him to look at the icons, Fitzgerald expected two or three recent icons. Then boxes containing 30 icons arrived on his doorstep.
"I was sort of thunderstruck," said Fitzgerald, who had never seen as large a collection outside a museum.
Fitzgerald said the icons appeared to be from the 1800s and were probably worth between $100 and $1,000 each, although he's not sure of their value.
Garrison told one gallery director, Vern Swanson of the Springville Museum of Art, that he had traded medical supplies for the icons on the Russian Isle of Vlaam. Swanson displayed the icons in a small gallery of the museum in 1993.
"You know, he was the kind of person that had 'operator' written all over him," Swanson said.
Yet Swanson did not doubt Garrison's version of how he came by the icons, since Swanson had visited Vlaam and saw its poverty.
"I totally believed his story and I still do."
Fitzgerald was dubious.
"The problem is believing anything Garrison says," Fitzgerald said. "He was out to make money. Who knows what he told the people in Russia to get them."
Fitzgerald said he had pressed Garrison for information about how he got the icons but got nowhere.
"The Soviet Union had broken up and all sorts of strange things were going on," Fitzgerald said.
One Utah gallery owner said Garrison's motives appeared sincere.
If he had been out to scam people, he would have had a better idea of the icons' worth, said the woman, who did not want her name used.
"I think he's just the type of person who would let his enthusiasm get away from him. . . . He could have just as easily brought back paper mache from Mexico," she said.
The icons awaiting their return to Russia are small and likely were once displayed in homes rather than churches.
Most are painted on wood, but a few are painted on metal or canvas. Most are bigger than an 8-by-11-inch piece of paper, and the largest is about 2-feet wide and tall.
An icon of Jesus Christ includes a Bible with the words "I give you a New Commandment." Another icon shows Jesus Christ holding a bible with the words "I am the Light of the World."
To those of the Russian Orthodox faith, such paintings hold religious significance.
"Icons are not pictures to us, they're windows to heaven," said Father Basil of Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Salt Lake City.