The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute for Anthropology and History, INAH) in Mexico has asked Christie’s to withdraw 30 pre-Hispanic objects from an upcoming Paris auction, arguing that they are part of the nation’s cultural heritage. INAH also claims three other items in the sale are fakes, showing signs of “recent fabrication.”
“We are speaking of 33 objects that are linked to cultures or civilizations that flourished in Mexico,” said Diego Prieto, INAH’s director-general, in an online press conference. “Of these 33 pieces, we have already determined that three are fake, while the rest do seem to meet conditions to prove their belonging to the original peoples of our territory that flourished before the arrival of European cultures.”
The sale, “Quetzalcoatl: Serpent à plumes,” includes 39 Mesoamerican and Andean masks, carved stones, and other works by Aztec, Mayan, Mixtec, and Toltec cultures from the same European private collection. On January 29, INAH filed a complaint about the auction with the Mexican attorney general’s office.
Among the trio of works INAH deems inauthentic is a Teotihuacan stone mask that carries the second-highest estimate of any lot in the sale, expected to fetch between €350,000 and €550,000 (~$420,864–$661,358). Dating from circa 450-650 CE, the piece belonged to the collection of Pierre Matisse, the modern painter’s youngest son.
“We would never ask this work to be returned, because we know it is not of ancient manufacture. It is likely the work of an expert Mexican hand, but dates from not too long ago,” said Prieto.
Regarding the 30 objects INAH has requested to be returned to Mexico, Prieto said, “The Mexican government does not and will never approve of the illegal sacking and commerce of national patrimony.” During the press conference, he cited previous instances of successful restitution collaborations between Mexico and France, including the return in 2015 of an Olmec bas-relief sculpture looted from the Mexican state of Chiapas in the 1970s and found in Paris nearly 50 years later.
Christie’s plans to move forward with the sale on February 9 in its Paris salesroom. A spokesperson said the works “are being legitimately sold as part of a transparent and legally compliant public sale process” and that the auction house has “not been provided with any evidence that would challenge the lawfulness of the sale.”
“Should Christie’s be provided with such evidence, we would of course consider it seriously, carry out further investigation and take any necessary measures including withdrawing any lot from the sale if we had any doubt about its provenance or its authenticity,” the spokesperson told Hyperallergic.
INAH has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.