Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Pre-Columbian Art Auctions come under Fire

Earlier this year, on March 22nd 2013, Sotheby's held an auction of 130 Pre-Columbian antiquities from the world-renowned Barbier-Mueller collection.  The announcement caused controversy, and various countries began demanding Sotheby's return of the artifacts.  Some of the countries include:
  • Peru
  • Guatemala
  • Mexico
Peru sought the return of 67 objects, Guatemala 13 objects, and Mexico 51 objects (while at the same time citing 79 of 130 objects as fakes).  Of greatest interest to me are the demands from Guatemala and Peru because I conducted a comparative analysis of these two countries as a part of my thesis.  I examined both countries' economic statuses, sociopolitical background, and the types of cultural property laws in place.

I concluded, in relation to the "November Collection" of the Pre-Columbian art at the MFA Boston, that Guatemala was not successful in the demand for the return because of the following factors:
  • Lack of country infrastructure and security in the country
  • Low GDP
  • Country needs to promote international collaboration and access to cultural and scientific education
  • Guatemala only began enacting cultural patrimony laws in 1999 and did not sign UNESCO until 1985
  • How the country makes a complaint, meaning it is best to contact the institution directly, and not complain to the press first
  • Resources a country has to devote to an extensive court process and negotiations
  • Public relations and repatriation: the more media attention a dispute attracts and the longevity of the story in the press could lead to the institution attempting to negotiate to avoid negative press.
Based on some of these factors, the source countries' (Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru) did not have a chance for the return of the objects from Sotheby's.  All the countries made a public complaint, but did not enter into negotiations. 

Most notably, the art world knew of the collection for decades.  The Barbier-Mueller family created a museum in 1977 to the delight of many, and as a result all of these countries had ample time to make a claim against the owners.

Based on the information I gathered, I do not think these countries had legal claim, which propbaly explains why this story died in the press the day after the auction.

Although I do not agree with the claims, I do not like the idea of an auction.  On March 22nd, 2013, Sotheby's carried out the auction and some of the results are as follows as reported by Sotheby's:




Estimate   8,00010,000
Lot Sold   21,250