Art theft specialists from Bavaria's criminal investigations office estimate that the collection, which includes around 1,100 masks, necklaces and statues, is worth about $100 million, said Ludwig Waldinger, a spokesman for the office.
Waldinger said that Costa Rican authorities appealed to Germany and Interpol last week to help find a collection that they contend was removed from the country illegally by a 66-year-old art collector named Leonardo Augustus Patterson.
Patterson, a former diplomat from Costa Rica, claims to have proper ownership of the artifacts, investigators said. The collection includes pieces made by Native American craftsmen in El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Peru and Colombia along with Costa Rica.
Waldinger said that Patterson recently arranged for the collection to be shipped from Costa Rica to Europe. After clearing customs in Spain, the artifacts were loaded onto a caravan of semitrailers and driven to Munich.
Costa Rica's National Museum director, Francisco Corrales, told The Associated Press that authorities had been trying to recover the pieces since August 2007 when Interpol sent them photos of the artifacts after they cleared customs in Spain.
"From images that Interpol sent to us we have identified 457 Costa Rican pieces," Corrales said.
He said the Costa Rican government plans to file its claims in Germany and Spain, in case the artifacts are returned to Spain, and said that Patterson must show documentation proving he owns the pieces legally.
"We do not have any registration of any shipment of this type leaving the country or being exported," he said. Costa Rican law stipulates that any pre-Colombian archaeological object found after Oct. 6, 1938, belongs to the state.
Bavarian authorities found the collection - including gold, jade and ceramic artifacts from different historical periods - packed in more than 100 wooden crates at an undisclosed location in Munich in southern Germany. They also found Patterson, who has been questioned by investigators but is not in police custody, said Waldinger.
He could face criminal charges if it is determined that he is not the collection's rightful owner, Waldinger said.
He added that authorities want to unpack and catalog the art, but need to coordinate that effort with archaeologists and Latin American officials - a process that could take up to a month.