Taíno protestors gathered yesterday, November 8, at the entrance of Christie’s Auction House and the French Embassy in Manhattan to oppose an upcoming auction of sacred artifacts on November 10. In partnership with Musee de l’Homme, Christie’s France plans to sell off dozens of ancient Taíno artifacts. In a promotional video for the auction since removed from the website, the director of the museum, Andre Delpeuch, claimed that the Taíno people were “completely destroyed” — despite the many Taíno voices protesting the sale.
This ahistorical claim has raised questions about the provenance of the items being sold. In a series of Facebook posts, Carlos Martinez Palmer, former museum specialist for the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, questioned the authenticity of all but two of the artifacts. In response to the allegations that the items could be fakes, Taína activist and TikTokker @Leevldzjay said in a recent TikTok video that “I feel like professionals and experts from the Caribbean islands should be able to verify that for themselves.”
Taíno individuals have also spoken out in a growing movement on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, culminating in a Change.org petition demanding the auction to be canceled and the items to be returned to the Dominican Republic under the care of the Taíno people. The appeal has gathered over 32,000 signatures, becoming one of the website’s fastest-growing petitions. In an interview with CBS, Stephanie Bailey, the cacique or chief of the AraYeke Yukayek (a self-determined tribe of Taíno individuals based in the United States), stated, “We feel it’s wrong for Christie’s to be auctioning off anything that belongs to our ancestors.”
Sanakori Ramos, the behique or medicine man for the AraYeke Yukayek tribe led a small group of protestors in a Taíno ceremony, after which participants shared their perspectives. One participant, who goes by Cee C. Elle on social media, said, “For Christie’s, I really hope that spirit comes to them — to understand that we’re not wiped out, we simply integrated into the new society that we were forced and colonized into. We’re still here, Christie’s.” Another, who goes by L. Suarez on social media, said, “We never left. We’re still here,” saying the auction “is like a slap in the face.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment on tomorrow’s auction, Christie’s stated:
As custodians of the art that passes through our doors, we recognise we have a duty to carefully research the art and objects we handle and sell. We devote considerable resources to investigating the provenance of works we offer for sale, and have specific procedures, including the requirement that our Sellers provide evidence of ownership. In the case of the upcoming sale, these checks have been carried out and we have no reason to believe that the property is from an illicit source or that its sale would be contrary to French law.
The auction house has a long history of selling contested Indigenous artifacts. The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute for Anthropology and History, INAH) in Mexico called for sales of pre-Columbian artifacts to be canceled several times this year — in February and in September — on the grounds that they are a part of Mexico’s cultural patrimony and that some of the artifacts were allegedly looted.
The Musee de l’Homme has a checkered past when it comes to cultural sensitivity; the institution displayed the preserved organs of Sarah Baartman (the woman from South Africa that was paraded around Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”) until 1974, and is known as the site where Picasso lifted ideas from African artworks. The museum reopened in 2015 after a renovation, aiming to rebrand itself with exhibitions denouncing racism like Us and Them. However, its recent claims that the Taíno are extinct, combined with a lack of transparency about the origins of the artifacts, has reignited the frustrations of activists and could reveal continued motives to profit off of Indigenous culture against the wishes of the Taíno people. (In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Musee de l’Homme directed the publication to Christie’s.)
Many of the artifacts being sold in the auction come from the private collection of Vincent Fay, a 78-year-old lawyer in Manhattan. This February, Fay filed a suit against Princeton University, who pulled out of a $1 million sale of his collection out of concern about the authenticity and origins of the works. Many of Fay’s artifacts are on display at institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museo del Barrio, and the Louvre. The Met’s online entries for the items, such as this Taíno bowl, list nothing about their provenance other than “Vincent and Margaret Fay, New York, until 1993.”
These artifacts are considered incredibly sacred to the Taíno people. Many contain cemis or zemis, which are believed to contain ancestral spirits. “They’re not just objects,” said Ramos in a recent radio broadcast. “They are more than that; they are living beings.” But if the sale continues as planned, rather than being under the care of the Taíno people, these artifacts critical to Caribbean Indigenous history will go back into the cabinets of private collectors.
Editor’s note: 11/10/21 1:35pm EDT: The total number of signatures on the Change.org petition has surpassed 41,000 signatures. The text has also been updated to reflect a quote by Taina activist and TikTokker @Leevldzjay.