Flashmag Digizine Edition Issue 107 July 2020 - Page 89


Between the price of an antique illegally taken from the ground, and an antique that can be presented on the legal market, we easily go from a hundred dollars at best to several hundred thousand dollars for exceptional pieces. In 2011, Sotheby’s New York sold a Greek statue attributed to the sculptor Timothy of Epidaurus (4th century BC) for nearly $ 20 million.

A local actor, in Syria or in Iraq, wishing to make profit from the fruit of a pillage, will thus have to invest before harvesting a real added value, just as an antique dealer will invest in an emissary and subcontractors to buy on site, get artifacts out of the area, hide them for several years then undertake the "whitening" of the piece, in order to sell it at the market price. Artifacts from site looting have never been inventoried before. From a legal point of view, it will therefore be difficult to trace their origin and prove theft, concealment and smuggling out of the supposedly original country.

The aim will therefore be to create a legal identity for it, the fictitious history of which on European soil will enable them to meet the criteria of provenance and will establish its authenticity as antiquity in the private domain. In Peru for example artifacts are most of the time labelled by dealers as legit copies to be smuggled out of the country, which remains one of the most looted in the world, because of the Mayan and Inca civilization it witnessed.

In 2019 Mexico deplored the sale of pre-Hispanic archaeological pieces in France, demanding the cancellation of the auction of more than 120 pieces of Pre-Columbian art organized by the Millon Public Sales Company at the Hôtel Drouot, in Paris, on Wednesday September 18, 2019.

The Mexican authorities of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) had concluded, on the basis of an expertise carried out on the pieces advertised for sale, that 95 of them came from the cultural heritage of Mexico, in particular of Teotihuacán, Guerrero and Oaxaca, as well as of the South-East of Mexico, region of the Olmec and Mayan cultures.

Until March 21, 2013, the public could admire at Sotheby’s, in Paris, one of the most beautiful private collections of pre-Columbian art. The 331 objects were sold at auction the following two days. But Peru had announced on February 27 to AFP that it was denouncing this sale, based on a law of 1822, and that it would transmit a “claim for [its] property through diplomatic channels in agreement with the international treaties

The sale in question was that of artifacts belonging to Genevan Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. A collection from the Inca, Mayan, Olmec, Chapicuaro or Mochica cultures, estimated at nearly 25 million Swiss francs. "I never bought elsewhere than from great professionals," argued the collector.

The house Sotheby’s, although scalded by this chaotic climate, confirmed having accepted the sale because the objects had "an irreproachable pedigree", and have gone through transparent circuits, including that of public sales. "All pieces have been traced since their first acquisitions," said sales expert Jacques Blazy. All of them predated the 1970 Unesco convention that prohibit the illicit circulation of cultural property, supplemented in 1995 by the Unidroit convention.

“And the sale to Drouot, in 2005, of the important collection of pre-Columbian art of the Swiss, Gérard Geiger (6.18 million euros) had it not gone smoothly?”

However, two major pieces from the Barbier-Mueller collection were excluded: a Mayan stele from the classical period (250 AD to 900 AD) and a fresco of Teotihuacan. The placing on the market of these architectural elements would have provoked the ire of Mexicans. Moreover, at the request of Mexico, at the end of 2008, the Central Office fighting against Cultural Goods Trafficking (OCBC) had seized 76 pieces just hours before a sale organized in Paris by Binoche and Pierre Bergé.

The pre-Columbian art market also suffers from a profusion of fakes. The most famous case is that of the crystal skulls brought back from Mexico by Eugène Pépin, in the 1920s. The Quai Branly had one, as false as that which decorated, in 2008, the cover of the catalog of the Binoche-Berger sale , and which was then seized as authentic by the OCBC. Likewise, the collection that Leonardo Patterson, the sulphurous Costa Rican diplomat, converted into a dealer in works of ancient art, almost sold to the autonomous government of Galicia, in 1997, for 18 million euros, was riddled with fakes, and was denounced by Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, several of his pieces were seized in Germany in 2008. It’s only in 2018 that Mexico finally recovered 2 rare wooden Olmec busts dating back more than 3,000 years, which had been kept in the Bavarian State archaeological collection. The two busts were illegally removed from the site of the Olmec ruins of El Manati, in the state of Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast.

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