The Road to the Auction House: How does a pre-Hispanic piece sell for thousands of dollars?
The hammer didn’t sound loud this time because the auction was online. But if it had fallen, it would have caused a crash: a supposed Mayan ax was selling for five times the value estimated by Sotheby’s. The stone with the features of a jaguar, snake and bat left current American territory. But the circumstances under which he did so are unknown. This target in the history of many archaeological objects – from America, but also from Africa, Oceania or Europe – protected by private collectors, museums or galleries is one of the objections of experts to the marketing of these pieces. . The route to the auction house is often a mystery.
The multi-animal ax has been known to have been part of the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, an American public institution, since 1944. Prior to that, it was on display at the Raphael Stora Gallery in New York. That the New York room had been acquired “presumably” from a German historian who lived in England after escaping the Nazis. But it is from there that starts the account made on its website by the house Sotheby’s, which did not answer the questions of this newspaper. Researchers Edwin M. Shook and Elayne Marquis wrote that the ax came out of present-day Guatemalan territory. The government of the Central American country, however, assured MRT that it did not recognize this coin as part of its heritage. Despite the uncertainty, the effigy was sold in May for more than $ 352,000 (over seven million pesos). Sotheby’s raised over $ 750,000 through the auction of this and other pre-Hispanic pieces.
As in this case, most of the time it is difficult to trace the origin of these objects as many left their places of origin centuries ago in the hands of travelers, collectors, archaeologists or the military. in the form of plunder or plunder. They thus reached the dealers who, in turn, sold them to museums or other collectors. At Acquiring Cultures: Global Art Stories in Western Markets, a 2018 book compiled, among others, by the famous art historian BÃ©nÃ©dicte Savoy, a passage illustrates the dynamics. “I’m sick of my collection of Chinese antiques, will you buy it?” A bored lieutenant proposes to the French merchant EugÃ¨ne Boban. The Breton soldier explains: âI started a new collection of pre-Columbian objects, in particular ceramic pieces and weapons.
This interest in owning unique pieces grew among the bourgeoisie of the time, who were looking for “exotic curiosities” to “escape their modern urban life”, we read in Acquire cultures. The first auction houses were created in the 16th century – Sotheby’s was founded in 1744 and Christie’s in 1766. Visiting these places becomes âa bourgeois ritualâ to learn about good taste, history or culture. science. In 1884, a New York publication already declared that “there is no profession more important in the metropolis than that of auctioneer”. Since then, these companies have become âpowerful spacesâ to promote these objects. But Savoy warns in the book: âNot all items can be auctioned and priced in the public, global, and seemingly rational monetary realm.
Even so, these artifacts often become collectibles. The question continues to circulate among critics: are these works of art? goods? Heritage treasures? Archaeologist Daniel Salinas CÃ³rdova, a specialist in heritage and restitution, points out that in addition to the âaesthetic and economic value conferred on them by the marketâ, these objects have scientific and social relevance for the communities descended from those who created these objects. rooms. : ” For some people [de estas piezas] They are not even known because they are in inaccessible collections â. âIt’s sad, he laments, that heritage is privatized and commercialized.
According to the archaeologist’s own account, in the first five months of 2021, nearly 300 Mesoamerican objects were sold in 12 auctions. Although the pandemic slowed down the strong growth that the art market has experienced in recent years, the sector âexperienced a rebound driven by auction houses which managed to continue their activity at the height of the health crisis. According to The Art Market 2020 report, which is a benchmark in the sector. The market contracted by 21% during the pandemic, forcing these players to speed up their digitization processes. The sale of archaeological pieces is only part of this still very secret market.
Guarantee authenticity and provenance
Auction houses have mechanisms and resources to ensure that a coin is not fake or from the illegal channel. Because contraband continues to exist despite the fact that the legislation has been strengthened: there are clandestine searches, falsification of documents and illicit trafficking, in addition to contemporary objects which are supposed to be considered old. In 2015, for example, it was the French firm Binoche et Guiquello which alerted when the family of a collector showed up with a pre-Hispanic artifact weighing 400 kilograms cut into four pieces. It turned out to be the Shock bas-relief, a strange 3,000-year-old Olmec coin that was stolen 40 years ago and returned to Mexico after the warning. But these mechanisms can fail: Sotheby’s had to withdraw from its last auction a ceramic bowl it had put up for sale, after the government of Guatemala claimed the piece.
Once the authenticity of an object has been verified, specialists assign it two estimated prices, a minimum and a maximum. The values ââare determined by different variations, such as the age of the piece, its exceptional character or the museums and collections through which it has passed. Salinas CÃ³rdova explains that the market also âhas trendsâ: âMaya is in great demand, also clay from Colima or green figurines from Guerrero. With an agreed starting price, auctions begin until the highest bidder wins.
In May, the alleged Mayan ax sold for over $ 350,000 was the top-selling piece at Sotheby’s annual American, African and Oceanic art auction. The artifact even exceeded the firm’s estimated maximum price of $ 70,000. Two archaeologists consulted by this journal, Daniel JuÃ¡rez, curator of the Mayan room of the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico, and TomÃ¡s PÃ©rez, researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), however doubt that he it is indeed a question of a piece of this provenance. “It’s certainly not Mayan,” says JuÃ¡rez, “neither in its manufacturing techniques nor in its iconography.”
Similar doubts arose when the Christie’s firm auctioned 33 pre-Hispanic pieces in Paris in February. At that time, the “declaration of intent” that Mexico and France agreed on Thursday had yet to be signed to “make the illicit trade in items important to Mexican historical and cultural heritage as difficult as possible.” Some of the works had been identified as fake by the Mexican government. But the sale continued despite complaints and recommendations from UNESCO that suggested suspending marketing until more information on the legal origin of the coins was obtained. Christie’s, who did not answer questions from this newspaper, argued that the sale met the requirements of French law, which recognizes the owner of the property as owner.
âThey are protected in that they do not sell goods of questionable origin. And in the end, they stick to the advantages conferred on them by the legislation of the place of the auction, âexplains doctor of cultural law Carlos Lara. The 1970 UNESCO convention aims to protect cultural property, but it is not retroactive, nor does it have direct effects on the internal law of States, and does not involve private actors. The 1995 UNIDROIT agreement completes it and addresses these shortcomings. However, some countries, such as Mexico, have yet to sign it. If the commercialization of these cultural goods is “morally reprehensible”, maintains the specialist, it remains nonetheless “appropriate”. Governments claim these objects through diplomatic channels, and there are cases of success, but often the result is the same. Hammer or not, and sold.
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