St. Louis Society Criticized for Pre-Columbian Auction

Zapotec Seated Figural Urn, Monte Alban (circa 550–950 AD), being auctioned by the St. Louis Society at Bonhams. Photo: Bonhams.

The St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America is being criticized for its plans to sell two important Pre-Columbian sculptures at Bonhams later this month.

The proposed sale of the Mesoamerican artworks follows on the heels of the Society’s sale of the “Treasure of Harageh” to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The majority of the 4,000 year-old artifacts were withdrawn at the last minute from an October Bonhams sale, although one alabaster headrest was auctioned off for $44,182 (see: “Met Rescues St. Louis’s Egyptian Artifacts from Auction“).

The Society has consigned two lots to the November 12 African Oceanic & Pre-Columbian Art auction, both of which were given to the organization by archaeologist Sylvanus Morley in 1911–12. A Zapotec urn from Monte Alban (ca. 550–950) is expected to fetch $3,000–5,000, while a Maya effigy vase from the same period carries a pre-sale estimate of $6,000–8,000. The decision to deaccession these works has come under fire from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).

When the artifacts were entrusted to the St. Louis Society, they “were intended to be placed in a public institution where they would be used for public education and scholarly study” argued the AIA in a statement condemning the sale. “Selling them breaks this fundamental commitment, now a century old.” A hearing is scheduled for January to determine whether or not to suspend or revoke the society’s charter.

Many are concerned that the sale of the Society’s artifacts, which have a sterling provenance, will inspire the future sale of illicitly acquired objects. “Almost all of the Mesoamerican antiquities on the market are dirty in some way,” archaeologist and antiquities trafficking expert Donna Yates warned on her blog, Anonymous Swiss Collector.

If the artifacts are not withdrawn from the Bonhams auction, they will almost certainly become part of a private collection, which, as the Egyptian Exploration Society pointed out before the planned Harageh sale, will “have no obligations to make the material they contain accessible” to the public. A petition calling for “archaeological ethics” has 333 signatures opposing the Society’s participation in the upcoming Bonhams auction.

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