Mexico demands end to sale of Aztec artifacts

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MEXICO CITY — German millionaire posed in front of her house holding up a piece of history; an ancient tool made from volcanic rock and dated to 1,000 BC Behind it, a huge Aztec statue stood next to several other archaeological artifacts.

The Mexican government maintains that these century-old pieces of cultural heritage belong to the country’s museums.

In Europe, they are considered pretty collector’s items. In just one sale in 2019, German collector Manichak Aurance – who was so happy to show off her loot on film – auctioned 94 artifacts.

Sales continue. Earlier this month, the prestigious Christie’s auction house in France presented 72 pre-Columbian pieces that the Mexican government had expressly asked them not to make, going so far as to call the auction “illegal. “Most of the pieces have gone up for sale anyway, including a Mayan stone sculpture called”Hacha Maya”, Depicting a bearded man with his head thrown back and struggling with a rattlesnake, which was sold for $ 800,000 to an unknown buyer.

A few days after the collection was published on Christie’s website, the Mexican Embassy in France said in a statement that it had contacted the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs to express its concerns about the sale. at auction, essentially claiming that Mexico’s “national heritage” should not be for sale.

A Mayan stone sculpture called “Hacha Maya” auctioned at Christie’s.

Christie’s

In the letter, the Embassy also argued that the commercialization of archaeological objects encourages transnational crime and creates favorable conditions for the looting of cultural property with illicit excavations. In Mexico’s eyes, every piece of archaeological significance belonging to the region that is currently abroad is considered stolen, given the regulations against trafficking in its cultural heritage that have existed since the 1800s.

In a written statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for Christie’s wrote: “We devote considerable resources to investigating the provenance of the works we are offering for sale and have specific procedures, including the requirement that our sellers provide proof of ownership. In the case of the upcoming sale, these verifications have been carried out and we have no reason to believe that the good is of illicit origin or that its sale would be contrary to French law.

Mexico’s current administration has redoubled its efforts to recover the nation’s archaeological heritage abroad. Since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office four years ago, the country has recovered more than 5,000 archaeological, historical, artistic and ethnographic objects.

More recently, in September this year, an auction organized by Bertolami Fine Arts in Rome was suspended after Mexico claimed that the pieces on offer belonged to its cultural heritage. The art house has decided to cancel the event and the Italian authorities have opened an investigation into the matter.

“Our story is not for sale,” Mexican Minister of Culture Alejandra Frausto told a press conference immediately after Christie’s auction. “These artifacts are not luxury decorations for a home, they are part of what makes Mexico a cultural nation.”

Efforts to stop the sale of Mexican cultural heritage in Europe appear to be slowing down. On November 17 and 20, Millon and Drouot, two art houses in France, auctioned off several antiques, including an Olmec mask for around $ 4,000 that belonged to a “Mexican diplomat in Monaco,” according to a brochure.

The Daily Beast contacted Mexican representatives in Monaco, but no one was available for comment.

Stéphane De Sakutin / AFP via Getty Images

“The main problem is demand, buyers. Most of them are wealthy Europeans who feel powerful and sophisticated, ”Daniel Salinas Córdova, a Mexican archaeologist and researcher living in Germany, told The Daily Beast.

“The problem [with ancient artifacts] is the same as for drug trafficking. Without paying attention to who the buyers are, it will be very difficult to stop the traffic and marketing of these coins, ”Córdova added.

But reaching bidders is almost impossible, as auction houses are not obligated to share buyer information. So far this year, Europe alone has held 23 auctions with a total of around 1,000 Mexican antiques sold.

Mexican law has prohibited the extraction of cultural property from Mexican soil for over 100 years, but many countries where artefacts are found after being illegally mined and tampered with did not pass legislation on the issue until 1970, when UNESCO published an international treaty stipulating that all cultural property belongs to its country of origin and cannot be imported, exported or transferred.

All of the artifacts on sale today are described as having been obtained before 1970 to prove their legality.

The wares, as Córdova explained, were mostly mined between the 1920s and 1970s, from known and unknown archaeological sites around Mexico by “impoverished families” who were often paid a few pesos for coins obtained by brokers who ended up selling them. for several thousand to overseas customers. Córdova said this practice is still ongoing, but on a much smaller scale.

“Some buyers think they are protecting the artifacts by acquiring them and taking them out of Mexico, but in reality they are privatizing our history and denying access to many Mexicans to even learn that these pieces exist,” Córdova said. “It is very sad that as Mexicans we cannot know how many coins are in the homes of wealthy and powerful Europeans and we only learn about it when they die and the coins are put back into disuse. auction.”

A new auction featuring at least a dozen antiques from Mexico is scheduled in France for December 3 at the Million auction house. Mexican authorities have already tried to stop the event, but the coins are still listed, with expected prices of up to $ 200,000.


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