False Idols on the Auction Block?
April 5, 2011
Last week a world record was set for the price of a pre-Colombian artifact sold at auction. The artifact went for approximately $4.1 million USD at an auction house in France, Binoche et Giquello. However, Mexican Government officials are claiming that the alleged artifact was not pre-Colombian at all.
The figure, titled “seated divinity,” was sold by Swiss collector Henri Law. Law put his entire pre-Colombian collection up for sale at auction because of his “burgeoning interest in contemporary art.” The collection, including the artifact in question, were dated and authenticated by experts and by the auction house.
After the auction, the National Institute of Mexican Anthropology and History and Mexico’s Foreign Ministry signed a statement that 67 of the 207 lots from the auction were “recently produced,” and do not belong to any of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cultures.
Who has greater authority to authenticate a pre-Colombian artifact – ‘experts’ or government officials? This may be an example of a national government trying to control its cultural heritage, or perhaps trying to control who reaps the benefits of that heritage. There is a 1972 Mexican law that limits private collections of these antiquities, and prohibits exports of pre-Hispanic artifacts. Any such items excavated after 1972 are automatically deemed the national property of Mexico.
“They want to ruin the market for pre-Hispanic art, that is my opinion,” said auctioneer Alexandre Giquello. What is the best method, then, for protecting pre-Colombian cultural heritage? According to the guardian, Giquello argued that there are safer regulations and controls in auction houses, whereas driving the market underground will give them no control at all.