Modest Sales of Pre-Columbian Artifacts Reflect Market's Reluctance to Acquire Objects With Questionable Provenance
04/02/2013In mid-March, the Mexican government demanded that Sotheby’s withdraw fifty-one Pre-Columbian Mexican artifacts from an upcoming sale, stating that they are protected historical pieces that constitute Mexican national property. Peru, Guatemala, and Costa Rica also voiced their objections to the sale, bringing the total number of contested lots to roughly one third of the total 313 lots.
The objects in question are part of what is known as the Barbier-Mueller Collection, a trove of Pre-Columbian art containing objects from Mexico, Central America and South America. Josef Mueller began assembling the collection in 1920. Under a 1972 law, Mexico prohibited the sale and purchase of archaeological pieces but allowed some already existing collections to remain in private hands if they were registered with the government. Even though the collection dated to prior to 1972, there have been laws in place in Mexico prohibiting the export of such artifacts since at least 1827.
A French diplomatic official, however, has noted that nothing included in the sale is listed on the French database used by the Central Office of Cultural Property, the Interpol database, or the International Council of Museums’ “red list” of cultural objects from Central America and Mexico. Furthermore, Sotheby’s stated that they “thoroughly researched the provenance of this collection and we are confident in offering these works for auction.”
The sale went forward, though it earned approximately $13.3 million, well below the pre-sale estimate of $19 to $23 million. After the sale, the president of Sotheby’s France, Guillaume Cerutti, said that “these results are good considering the context in which the sale unfolded.” And he may be right. Even though Sotheby’s continued to deny that any items were illicit and that all had been properly researched, the controversy provoked by Mexico’s objection to the sale was heavily publicized in the European media. The lower-than-expected sales also may reflect increasing reluctance on the part of potential buyers to engage with objects whose past and provenance are in question.
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