September 18, 2019

Mexican Foreign Ministry urges French auction house Millon (in Paris) to halt an auction of pre-Columbian art

Image Credit: Millon Drouot
The Mexican government, through its Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and its Ministry of Culture, have formally challenged the auctioning of 95 pieces of pre-Hispanic origin.  In doing so, they are calling upon French auction house Millon Drouot to halt its sale of the Manichak and Jean Aurance Collection of Pre-Columbian art which is scheduled to take place today and includes some 130 pre-Columbian art objects.  

During a press conference, the Mexican Ambassador to France, Juan Manuel Gómez-Robledo, indicated that a concern was lodged on September 12, 2019 by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, the competent authority in the matter asking that the auction be cancelled and that the objects in the collection contested restituted to the country. 

Raising their concerns about the provenance of the pieces, the Mexican authorities allege that some of the artifacts appear to have been stolen and/or illegally exported. Concerned with their status, María del Socorro Villarreal Escárrega, national coordinator of legal affairs for Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History stated that the INAH has filed a corresponding complaint with the Prosecutor's Office General of the Republic, collaborating with diplomatic authorities in order to seek the restitution of the objects. 


In their formal statement, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry stated that 95 of the 120 objects up for auction appear to be from early Mesoamerican complex civilizations such as the Olmec, which inhabited the Gulf Coast territory of Mexico extending inland and southwards across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, from 1600 BCE until 350 BCE and the Maya who assimilated Olmec influences into the emerging the city-states of the Maya civilization.  

According to the Millon catalog, and the Antiques Trade Gazette collectors Manichek and Jean Aurance purchased their first pre-Columbian artwork in 1963 from the French dealer Olivier le Corneur who operated Galerie Le Corneur-Roudillon.  They continued purchasing tribal art  for their Art Deco lakeside home in Vésinet from le Corneur, Henri Kamer, Pierre Langlois, René Rasmussen and Charles Ratton.  Some of those pieces seem to have passed through Los Angeles art dealer Earl Stendahl.

Earlier last week Guatemala confirmed that following their own formal protests on August 28, 2019 Millon had suspended the sale, at least for a while, of one of the pre-Hispanic pieces up for auction.


Lot 55 -  A stone relief depicting the Spearthrower Owl, was discovered by Teobert Maler in 1899 and dates to 700 CE.  It was stolen from the powerful city-state of Piedras Negras in the remote northwest area of the Department of Petén in Guatemala's Sierra del Lacandón in the 1960s.

Drawing from CMHI
v. 9-1.
According to UT-Austin archaeologist and Mesoamerican art historian and epigrapher, Dr. David Stuart, who first reported (in English) about Guatemala's Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes' efforts  to stop the sale in late August, the disputed stolen relief is a portion of Stela 9 found by Teobert Maler at the ruins if Piedras Negras in 1899 on the large terrace to the east of Structure J-3, and originally placed between Stelae 10 and 40.

Allowing time for the seller, the State of Guatemala and Millon to discuss the contested object and the legality of the sale in France, Drouot Paris issued the following comment on Twitter, hinting that the sale was a legitimate one, despite the crime of removing it from the territory.
In cases of property dispute, French law, articles 2274 and 2262 of the Civil Code, tend to prefer the bona fide purchaser, in their purchase of a stolen or misappropriated movable object over that of the victim, which in this circumstance is Guatemala and Mexico.   French Law provides that title can be obtained by a good faith purchaser by way of prescription after 30 years.

As of the writing of this article, neither the consignor nor Millon has not announced a response to the Mexican government's request. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

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