Mexico’s restitution efforts continue as government officials attempt to stop two auctions of Pre-Columbian artifacts in Paris. Bidding opens today at the French auction house Artcurial for a group of Islamic and Pre-Columbian objects, while a Christie’s auction of Pre-Columbian and Taino objects from a private collection is scheduled for November 10.
In a statement, the Mexican Embassy in France expressed its “deep concern” about the legality of the sale. In the letter, officials stressed that “the commercialization of archaeological pieces encourages transnational crime and creates the favorable conditions for the recrudescence of the looting of cultural property through illegal excavations.”
Embassy officials directly requested that each sale be halted, arguing that the sale of the country’s cultural treasures was “far from promoting a better knowledge and appreciation of original cultures” and instead “strips these invaluable objects of their cultural, historical and symbolic essence, turning them into commodities or curiosities by separating them from the anthropological environment from which they come.” Likewise, officials sent letters to the president of Christie’s Paris and the executive president of Artcurial.
The Mexican Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, has also strongly condemned the sale, referencing the Declaration of Intent on the Strengthening of Cooperation against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property, which was signed by the Mexican and French governments last July. The agreement signaled a recommitment of both countries to the restitution and protection of each nation’s respective cultural property.
Frausto Guerrero called the Artcurial sale, which contains 37 archaeological pieces from pre-Columbian cultures, a “crime.” In an open letter, she called on Artcurial to stop the auction and take into consideration the historical values of the objects “which are superior to any commercial interest.”
Meanwhile, UNESCO told AFP that it received a letter from Mexican officials expressing concern over the auctions. “We are examining the information they have provided us about the illegality of the sale of about 78 objects offered for sale by Christie’s,” a UNESCO spokesperson said. The Mexican embassy said in a statement that it hopes UNESCO will exert its influence to stop the sales.
However, bidding opened as scheduled at Artcurial’s online platform, with several pieces already sold. Neither auction house has yet to publicly respond to the Mexican government. The catalogue for the Artcurial sale lists more than 40 pre-Columbian artifacts, carrying values estimated between €200 and €10,000 ($231–$11,600), while Christie’s expects to earn upwards of a combined €41 million ($47 million) across its 78 lots.
In recent years, the Mexican government has initiated concerted action to stop the international trafficking and sale of cultural property. In September, Mexican authorities succeeded in halting an auction of 17 Mexican artifacts that appeared at the Rome-based Casa Bertolami Fine Arts. Every piece that had yet to be sold was secured and returned to Mexico, while the delivery of the artifacts that had already been purchased was blocked. However, an auction of 30 pieces of pre-Columbian artifacts in Germany proceeded that month as planned.