It seems impossible that in the 21st-century European auction houses are still getting rich from what was stolen from pre-Columbian Indigenous communities. However, a new Christie’s auction gives us a full-or-reality slap in the face.
This week, the auction house will hold a sale titled “Pre-Columbian Art and Taíno Masterpieces,” which includes 38 works that “speak to the creativity of the Taínos,” according to its online description.
Some of the Taíno pieces in play can fetch bids of between $5,000 and $200,000. The collection includes manatee bone ritual spatulas used in ceremonies, shell ornaments, and three-pointed stones depicting deities, CBS News said.
Many of the works, which come from a “private collection,” have been loaned to and exhibited in many renowned museums worldwide, Christie’s said.
The auction, more than offensive, is an obliteration of historical conscience, knowing that the Taíno were one of the first people in the Americas to find Christopher Columbus lost in 1492 when he and his crew arrived in Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), while searching for the so-called Indies.
Decades later, the Taínos, as well as hundreds of Indigenous tribes, were wiped off the map.
That’s why Stephanie Bailey, the chieftain of the Arayeke Yukayek, a Taíno tribe with dozens of U.S.-based members, told CBS News last week that they have asked Christie’s to stop the sale and return the pieces to their homelands.
“The overall sentiment of the Taíno people is, we feel it’s wrong, we feel it’s wrong for Christie’s to be auctioning off anything that belongs to our ancestors,” she said.
Similarly, Mexican government officials have joined the effort to stop Christie’s auction and that of French auction house Artcurial, which opened bidding on a group of Islamic and pre-Columbian objects.
In a statement, the Mexican Embassy in France expressed its “deep concern” about the legality of the sale, ARTNews reported. In the letter, officials stressed that “the commercialization of archaeological pieces encourages transnational crime and creates the favorable conditions for the recrudescence of the looting of cultural property through illegal excavations.”
Embassy officials requested that the sale be halted, arguing that the bidding turned the 37 archaeological pieces of pre-Columbian cultures “into commodities or curiosities.”
Meanwhile, UNESCO told AFP that it received a letter from Mexican officials expressing concern over the auctions. “We are examining the information they have provided us about the illegality of the sale of about 78 objects offered for sale by Christie’s,” a UNESCO spokesperson said. The Mexican embassy said in a statement that it hopes UNESCO will exert its influence to stop the sales.
Finally, on a more positive note, Germany has returned pre-Columbian pieces discovered in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt to Mexico and Guatemala.
According to EFE, the pieces include sculpted figures, vases, and plates dating from the 250-850 period that were probably looted from tombs and sold to collectors.
Authorities found the objects on a property in the town of Klötze thanks to the information provided by the former owner and occupant.
The antiquities were handed over to Mexican Ambassador Francisco Quiroga and Guatemalan Ambassador Jorge Lemcke by the Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff, at a ceremony at the state delegation in Berlin.
“It’s very important for us because, while they may appear to be small pieces, it is not the value of the piece as such, but the connection it has with the past,” Lemcke told EFE.