Sunday, 19 September 2021

Mexico attempts to halt German auction of Pre-Columbian artefacts [UPDATED]


Ceramic figurines from Tlatilco (Mexican Central
 Highlands), if authentic, c. 1500-550 BC, currently 
 being flogged off like potatoes by German dealer 
Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger with an estimate of
€ 3,000  (photo Nachfolger/Art Newspaper)

The Mexican government has stepped up its campaign to end the international sales of its country's pre-Colombian artefacts. The Mexican government has written to the Munich-based seller, Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger attempting to halt an auction next week of 74 artefacts that the Instituto Nacional de Arqueologia e Historia (INAH) has designated as “national patrimony” belonging to the citizens of Mexico (Art Newspaper). They cite the 1934 Mexican regulation that prohibits the export of objects of archaeological significance and reiterate their determination to seek the return of works suspected of having been excavated illegally or trafficked. The online catalogue shows that the sale includes a range of figures from the areas of Michoacan and Veracruz and estimates/reserves for individual pieces typically range from €3-5000 to €100,000. It is reported that a group of wealthy philanthropists, as well as individuals involved in the nation’s lucrative mining sector, had announced they would be buying the objects so as to return them to Mexico. Francisco Quiroga, Mexico’s ambassador in Germany, stated on social media that, although the gesture was appreciated, it was not an acceptable course of action as it would only allow Nachfolger to profit from selling back to the nation items that they should never have been handling, stolen from it, in the first place, and that it would fuel the further trade in stolen artefacts.

It is usual that the "antiquities" being sold on the antiquities market (as "ancient art") include fakes. This is especially the case with Mesoamerican items (Kelker, Nancy L. and Bruhns, Karen O. 2010, Faking Ancient Mesoamerica, Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press). Quiroga added that INAH has recognized at least one of the items offered by Nachfolger to be a fake, but declined to say which one it was. A representative of this dealer (who, it seems, started out just selling medals, banknotes and coins before seeing the profits that could be made in antiquities) "strongly denied" reports that any of the works are fakes and "stated they’ve all been absolutely authenticated". Well, they all do don't they? But none of them show "how" in the absence of a paperwork chain grounding them in an authentic discovery in a known archaeological context. Oh, and of course the usual dealer-standby: "some individual works had moreover (sic) been checked against The Art Loss Register". Well, all the dealers say the same, despite the caution that we've been expressing since the ALR was set up in 1990 in Margaret Thatcher's times, that the ALR only records items reported by insurers, police forces and others. Somehow, it seems, ‘huaqueros’ and the like don't seem very keen to report their hauls to the ALR so they can be identified when they "surface" on the foreign antiquities market. It's time that antiquities dealers stopped trying to kid us all that merely checking with the ALR is the only due diligence this particular segment of the market needs to do. Of course it is not. 

Also, let us be really clear; a large part (and in some cases like the Mexican figurines, the predominant part) of the objects coming onto the market are items produced for deposition with (and for) the deceased in graves/tombs. Other types (like the ever-popular jewellery) are most easily found by targeting cemeteries and tombs. A lot of the sculpture treated as "ancient art" has also come from tombs. All over the ancient world, the ancient dead are being dug up, their places of repose desecrated to serve this market of self-serving people with no sensitivities for the deeds their acquisitive greed encourages, their declared "respect for culture" cancels out their respect for the people who made that culture. The antiquities market is not only trade in dead people's possessions, it is often a prime cause of grave robbing. This seems a theme worth exploring further. For a starter see Adam Daubney 2019, 'Grave Finds: Mortuary-Derived Antiquities from England and Wales', Public Archaeology Volume 17, 2018 - Issue 4, pp. 156-175. DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2019.1635408.

Update 20.09.21
Dr Donna Yates: 
I believe that some of the objects in the disputed Gerhard Hirsch auction of pre-Columbian antiquities are *fake*. Most experts will agree with me. I think the rest are almost certainly illegally looted and illicitly trafficked. I will not say which of these I believe to be fakes because I think that supports the market for looted antiquities. Buyer beware. See here for more info on why I call out fakes but don't ID them: I see that Mexico has done the same, stating that there are fakes but not saying which ones. They've done this before and I like it.
 I am glad she said that, as my reaction to the Mexican statement on seeing this lot of stuff was "just one of these?". I'm not an expert like Dr Yates, but I see several that even on the titchy one-sided photos GHN supply look pretty suspicious to me and several more that I bet if we had better photos it'd be clearer what we are dealing with. And I think not just for archaeologists, collectors have their own lore and pointers, and the photos simply do not provide into on (for example, those encrustations and manganese spotting). GHN should do better to inform their clients what their experts say is what. 

Dr Yates says "don't tell", so I won't voice my suspicions. I'll draw attention to the toolmarks however on three of the stone items and publicly ask GHN's experts what kind of ancient tool they think made them, and how did it work? Can you spot which three, people? They've all already found a happy buyer who IMO did not caveat enough and quite possibly do not have much experience handling hand tools themselves. Of course, if these experts would actually say what kind of stone each is, we'd be in a better place to judge (by knowing how hard it is) why the toolmarks look as they do. No descriptions of material are given.  Also looking at several of these, it'd be good if they were to give an honest opinion what the surface encrustation on each piece actually is, some of them to me (an archaeologist) IMO do not look very much like they are from soil processes (but admittedly I've never dug in Mexico). 

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