The Paris branch of the London auction house, Sotheby’s, recently received €10 million for the “legal sale” of a collection of pre-Columbian artefacts which, from an ethical point of view, are arguably the property of Latin America.
Sotheby’s pressed ahead with the auction despite facing a huge wave of criticism from Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela and Peru, countries seeking the return of part of their cultural heritage which was taken either legally or illegally from archaeological sites at the end of the 19th Century and during a large part of the last century.
The auction house, one of the oldest in the world, went forward with the sale claiming that all of the pieces rightfully belonged to a branch of the Barbier-Mueller Swiss museum that was opened in Barcelona, Spain.
In September 2012, after 15 years of being open to the public, Barbier-Mueller closed the doors of its museum in Barcelona and decided to put the pre-Columbian collection up for auction instead of transferring it to its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
How and when did these artefacts which were once buried in Latin America reach Europe? Citizens who are somewhat informed on this matter and condemn this thriving business of auction houses profiting from artefacts that have never been theirs to own, are now asking these, and other, questions.
Authorities, historians and archaeologists, however, are perfectly aware of the crux of this matter and have more than one answer.
Honduras, whose authorities had not voiced their objection to the auction, serves as a good starting place for determining who are the main perpetrators and what methods and routes are used in the trafficking of archaeological artefacts, commonly referred to as “antiquities” by buyers and dealers who are unaware of their cultural value.
Of around 300 pieces that were offered for auction by Sotheby’s on the 22nd and 23rd March of March this year, the three that were catalogued as “lot 34”, “lot 221” and “lot 213” by the London company, belong to the cultural heritage of this Central American country.
According to the auction house, “lot 221” was sold for €35,000 and “lot 213” for €3,750 while “lot 34”, which was estimated to sell at €50,000, does not appear in the list of items sold to private owners.
“Lot 221” was a small sculpture of a man stood with his arms raised to chest height. It is 10cm high and 4cm wide. The sculpture dates from the Mayan Classic Period between 600 and 900 A.D. The item originates from the Copan Valley, an area which encloses the ancient city that is known worldwide as Copan.
“Lot 213” was a clay figure painted with orange pigment which is 8cm tall. It is from the Mayan Pre-Classic Period between 900 and 600 B.C. and also originates from Copan.
“Lot 34” was an ancient marble vase. This object, the most remarkable of the three, originates from the Ulua Valley, a region which is known today as the Sula Valley and has San Pedro Sula as its main city.
The vase is 18cm tall and dates back to 1200 A.D., between the Late Classic and Terminal Classic Period of this area.
All of these ornaments formed part of the religious symbolism of the ancient Mesoamericans.
According to Sotheby’s, these three items were part of the Barbier-Muellen museum collection, in other words, they belonged to Josef Mueller’s large assembly of pre-Columbian art that he began to accumulate in 1907 and which his son-in-law continues to collect today.
When Josef Mueller began to collect these treasures there were no laws that prohibited the trafficking of archaeological artefacts, in other words, this activity took place within a legally permissive context.
However, the situation began to change for “tomb raiders” as traffickers and collectors are commonly known, when in 1970 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) subscribed to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illegal Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Who is involved?
In an essay titled “Diplomats, banana cowboys and archaeologists in Western Honduras”, published in 2007 by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), North American investigator, Christina Luke, reveals how looters of pre-Hispanic art were actually able to take and remove artefacts from this Central American country.
For so-called “treasure hunters”, Honduras became an infinite source of economic riches, so much so that some individuals went to extreme lengths.
In her essay, Luke reminds of how in 1839 explorer and US diplomat, John Lloyd Stephens, bought the Copan city ruins, which are now considered as a world heritage site, for the sum of US$50.
The diplomat intended to convert the ancient Mayan city into a large trading base for the continent’s antiquities. The government revoked the sale in 1850.
Unfortunately, he also took artefacts from Honduran lands that he believed to be of immense trade value, proof of which can be seen in letters that he signed and sent to the US.
As Luke suggests, those “responsible” for allowing Byron Gordon access to Honduras’ historical past were the US State Department, the Rosario Mining Company and the United Fruit Company.
North American authorities carried out the diplomatic work, funded by the companies who also supplied transport facilities.
During the 1890’s, on the grounds that the country lacked the economic means to carry out the investigations of their own accord, the Honduran government authorised the entry of North American explorers to archaeological sites on condition that any findings be shared equally. For this reason, concessions were made to the Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
In her essay, Luke states that Gordon’s “main contact in Washington was G. Valentine from the Rosario Mining Company who created a network for exploiting and shipping materials”.
The archaeologist, who has shown dedication in her in-depth investigations of marble vases and fonts in the Sula Valley, maintains that both groups worked with local crews to search for antiquities.
Furthermore, at that time, “the highly prized marble vessels were amongst the most valued objects. They were originally discovered by Gordon’s first excavations in the valley and are still one of the most sought after objects today”.
“The tangled web of trading mixed with an interest in collecting antiquities documents not only how the art of diplomacy can control market values in addition to intellectual and academic values, but also how the final objective of the private purchasing of finds is to add to growing US collections” added Luke.
In the 21st Century, Latin American countries, the rightful owners, hope that the trading companies put a stop to the sale of pre-Hispanic artefacts and pressure for the return of these objects as they legally belong to their nations’ national heritage.
Private collectors, however, defend themselves with the claim that in this case, the laws are not retroactive. In contrast, ethically they are considered as accomplices to the age-old, but still operative, network of looters.
(Translated by Rebecca Hayhurst)