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Auctioning of Central American prehistoric art draws rebuke

French plans to auction pre-historic art angers central American nations

The Mexican Embassy in France denounced the planned auction of over 100 pieces of pre-Hispanic artifacts to be conducted by luxury auction house Christie's in Paris on Wednesday.

In a joint statement issued along with the embassies of Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru, Mexico condemned the commercialization of such cultural goods and expressed “a vigorous rejection of the sale of pre-Hispanic objects, due to the devastation of the history and identity of [indigenous] peoples caused by the illicit trade in cultural goods.”

Mexico has long disputed the ownership and sale of pre-Hispanic artifacts, a cause which has found a champion in Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, wife of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Gutiérrez Müller, who shuns the title of “First Lady,” called such auctions in Europe “immoral,” adding, “The cultural heritage of our nations belongs to our people.”

Tuesday's joint statement invited “all people who have in their possession the cultural goods of our countries to return them.”

While such pleas have fallen upon deaf ears in the past, one recent return of several Mayan sculptures gives Mexico and other formerly colonized countries in Latin America hope that others will follow suit.

On Friday, Germany returned a collection of 13 ancient Mayan pieces to Mexico and Guatemala, their countries of origin. The figurines, plates, and glass pieces date from between 250 and 850 CE. They were found by German police while collecting a pair of World War II-era rifles that the owner of the home wanted to hand over to authorities due to their illegality.

The owner of the home and artifacts claimed to be unaware of their provenance or value. He said he had bought them for around $100 in a flea market in Leipzig, Germany in 2003. German authorities stated that they were probably stolen from tombs in Guatemala and Mexico before being sold on the black market.

“We trust that other owners of similar objects will follow the same path,” said Guatemala’s ambassador to Germany, Jorge Lemcke Arévalo, in a press conference after the return of the pieces.

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Mexico’s ambassador to Germany, Francisco Quiroga, told Courthouse News that such actions are becoming more common as the owners of pre-Colombian pieces feel the bite of their consciousnesses about the items they possess.

A family in France returned four pre-Hispanic pieces to Mexico in July.

“This is not a one-off event,” Quiroga said. “Those in possession of these types of pieces are increasingly realizing the illegality of their origins and that they’ll only bring shame and create problems for them in the future.”

Luxury auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, however, have yet to feel the prick of their inner voices.

Despite threats from the Mexican government to take legal action to halt a Sotheby’s auction of pre-Hispanic artifacts in New York in May, the auction went ahead as scheduled and pulled in over $650,000, with the sale of one Mayan stone effigy accounting for more than half of that figure. Such requests, demands and threats have gone unheeded by auction houses for years.

Christie’s did not respond to Courthouse News’ request for a statement by the time of publication.

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Mexican Embassy in Germany via Twitter

One of a number of artifacts returned to Mexico and Guatemala from Germany after they were found by German police.