Despite International Outcry, Christie’s Sale of Pre-Columbian Artifacts Went Ahead—But Almost a Third of the Objects Failed to Sell

Countries across in Central America issued a joint statement against the sale.

MEXICO - CIRCA 2011: Pre-Columbiansculpture, Museo Amparo in Puebla, Mexico in 2011 - Museo Amparo is a private museum which has fabulous collections of Pre-Columbian objects. (Photo by Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
MEXICO - CIRCA 2011: Pre-Columbiansculpture, Museo Amparo in Puebla, Mexico in 2011 - Museo Amparo is a private museum which has fabulous collections of Pre-Columbian objects. (Photo by Veronique DURRUTY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

An auction of pre-Columbian artifacts went ahead at Christie’s in Paris yesterday, November 10, despite widespread criticism about the sacred nature some of the items on offer, as well as the legitimacy of the sale.

The house’s “Pre-Columbian Art & Taíno Masterworks” sale was preceded by an in-person protest, a slew of media articles, and a petition that circulated on change.org, signed by 44,767 supporters trying to halt the sale. Official representatives from several countries in Central America published a joint statement condemning the sale.

Nevertheless, the auction went on as scheduled, totalling €3,062,750 ($3,515,000), but with a third of the 137 lots going unsold. Christie’s defended the sale, saying the house recognizes its “duty to carefully research the art and objects we handle and sell.”

The highest price reached was for a Mayan hacha, or axe, dated to between 550 and 950 B.C. The piece was sold for €692,000 ($793,600), more than tripling its high estimate of €225,000 ($257,993). Two gold pendants, one dated to between 1 and 500 B.C. and the other dated to between 800 to 1500 B.C., fetched €137,500 ($157,639) and €125,000 ($143,329), respectively.

Example of Spatula, 900-1492. Caribbean, Greater Antilles, Taíno, 10th-15th century. Photo by Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

 

The most contested lots were 38 Taíno objects from the Fiore Arts Collection that are sacred to the Taíno indigenous people, 22 of which sold. A Taíno pendant dated to 1,000 and 1,500 B.C. sold above its high estimate of €180,000 ($206,130) for €287,500 ($251,057).

“As an Indigenous person, I cannot fathom the thought of just somebody taking somebody else’s culture, something that is so sacred to them, and selling them for profit,” Jesenia Valdez, member of the cultural organization AraYeke Yukayek, told Artnet News in an interview.

Especially important to the Taíno are the cleansing spatulas, six of which sold for between €23,000 ($26,375) and €68,000 ($77,982) alongside other Taíno cultural artifacts, including ceremonial pendants and small sculptural objects called Zemis.

“The Zemis are literally the spirit of our ancestors,” said Valdez. “That those [objects] are not with us hurts the most.”

Mexico has become particularly vocal about protecting its cultural heritage at home and abroad. In May this year, Mexican officials threatened legal action against Sotheby’s in hopes of stopping a sale of pre-Columbian objects. Officials and activists were also calling for a halt to the online sale of pre-Columbia objects at French auction house Artcurial, which went ahead on November 3. This outspokenness follows a declaration signed by France and Mexico in 2020 agreeing to strengthen the battle against illicit trafficking in cultural property.

The push-back on the sale also comes amid a sea-change in public opinion about the ownership of cultural objects from the colonial era. Ahead of the sale, the nation’s first lady Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller expressed her disapproval of the sale on Twitter. In an interview with AFP, Mexican cultural minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero called the auction “a crime.” The day before the sale, the embassies of Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru in France issued a joint statement condemning the auction, expressing their “concern about the commercialization of cultural property,” in light of the “the devastation of the history and identity of the peoples that the illicit trade of cultural property entails.”

“As custodians of the art that passes through our doors, we recognize we have a duty to carefully research the art and objects we handle and sell,” Christie’s Paris said in a statement sent to New York Times last week. “We devote considerable resources to investigating the provenance of works we offer for sale, and have specific procedures, including the requirement that our sellers provide evidence of ownership.” Artnet News contacted Christie’s for further comment after the auction, but did not hear back by publishing time.


Follow Artnet News on Facebook:


Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.

Share