Ancient Native American art inside Missouri's Picture Cave (all photos by Alan Cressler and courtesy of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers)

A historic Missouri cave containing Native American art from over 1,000 years ago was auctioned off yesterday, September 15, for $2.2 million. The Osage Nation, which hoped to buy the sacred site to protect and preserve it, called the sale “truly heartbreaking.”

Known as the Picture Cave, the two-cave system is nestled within a 43-acre stretch of land in Warren County, Missouri, about 60 miles west of St. Louis. Scholars have called it “the most important rock art site in North America” because of a collection of 290 prehistoric glyphs on its walls. It is believed to be the largest concentration of Indigenous American paintings ever discovered in the ancient cultural region once called Meso-America. The cave was a sacred ritual and burial site for Indigenous tribes, primarily the Osage Nation, who controlled the area before their lands were dispossessed. The cave system is also home to one of the largest populations of the endangered Indiana gray bat.

The prehistoric cave, along with the 43 acres of lush pastures surrounding it, was auctioned by the St. Louis-based Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers on behalf of a three-generation family whose members originally purchased the property from private ownership in 1953 and used it mainly for hunting.

In an email to Hyperallergic, Selkirk’s director Bryan Laughlin said the previous owners were “the driving force behind [the cave’s] protection, preservation, and understanding.” 

The new owner, whose name has not been disclosed, is a “cave conservationist who wishes to remain private,” said Laughlin.

The sale prompted the outcry of Indigenous groups and scholars who believe that a sacred archaeological site of this magnitude should not be sold to the highest bidder.

“Our ancestors lived in this area for 1300 years,” a statement by the Osage Nation read. “This was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried throughout Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave.”

Picture Cave is nestled within a 43-acre stretch of land in Warren County, Missouri

Carol Diaz-Granados and James Duncan, two of the authors of the book Picture Cave: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Mississippian Cosmos, were among the leading opponents of the sale.

“Auctioning off a sacred American Indian site truly sends the wrong message,” Diaz-Granados told several media outlets. “It’s like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.”

In response, Laughlin told Hyperallergic that potential bidders were vetted to ensure the protection of the ancient artworks.

All signs point to the cave being preserved for years to come,” he said. “Selkirk does not wish the property to be altered or disturbed in any fashion. We champion the further research and protection of not only this historical archeological site, but all history.”

Asked if he sympathizes with the disappointment and pain of Osage Nation, Laughlin replied: “Criticism is necessary and helps ensure accountability. There are many different feelings expressed regarding the sale of the property and all should be respected; we do not wish any member of any community to feel pain.”

The cave features elaborate drawings of human figures, animals, birds, and mythical creatures. According to Diaz-Granados, a research associate in the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis, charred botanical material was used to make many of the drawings. Others were etched onto the sandstone. Analytical chemists from Texas A&M University, who had analyzed pigment samples from the cave, determined the drawings were at least 1,000 years old.

One of the ancient drawings of Missouri’s Picture Cave

Diaz-Granados also noted that the level of detail in the Missouri cave sets it apart from other sites with ancient cave art.

“You get stick figures in other rock art sites, or maybe one little feather on the top of the head, or a figure holding a weapon,” the scholar said. “But in Picture Cave you get actual clothing details, headdress details, feathers, weapons. It’s truly amazing.”

The cave’s walls also bear witness to the colonization of Indigenous lands. According to Laughlin, European “explorers” who visited the area in the 1700s scribbled the names of the ship captain and his crew members on the walls.

Feeling helpless against the powers of the market, Diaz-Granados said she’s clinging to the hope that the new owner will donate the property to the Osage Nation.

“That’s their cave,” she said. “That’s their sacred shrine, and it should go back to them.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...