Another antiquities auction has turned into another international art dispute.
This time it’s the sale, scheduled for Friday and Saturday at Sotheby’s in Paris, of the Barbier-Mueller Collection of Pre-Columbian art from
The Mexican government's National Institute of Anthropology and History is demanding a halt to the sale of 51 of the 313 works in the auction, according to the Associated Press, saying they are Mexican national property. Mexico was seeking diplomatic assistance from the French government.
Sotheby's has estimated that two ceramic works will sell for about $2 million to $4 million – a flying duck from Michoacan dating from AD 1200 to 1521, and a 2,000-year-old, two-foot-tall goddess (pictured) that's now named for the classic ancient Roman statue, "Venus Callipyge."
Other leading pieces include two Aztec stone gods estimated to fetch $530,000 to $794,000.
Sotheby's issued a statement saying the sale would go on. Having "thoroughly researched the provenance of this collection…we are confident in offering these works for auction," it said. Sotheby's said it decided to go ahead after "dialogue with several nations and [giving] careful consideration to their concerns about this sale."
The Mexican antiquities authorities issued a statement saying that of the 130 pieces in the auction said to be from Mexico, the 51 it wants sent back are "archaeological artifacts that are national property, and the rest are handicrafts" – meaning that Mexico doesn't consider them authentic ancient works.
Controversies over antiquities often focus on whether they were taken from their country of origin after November 1970, when
Sotheby's online auction catalog says the two top-estimated ceramic figures in the Paris auction were first seen publicly outside Mexico in Montreal in 1960, and that the Aztec stone figures were acquired by Swiss collector Josef Mueller in the 1920s. But Mexico is pressing its claim based not on the 1970 UNESCO convention, but on its own national laws dating from the 1820s.
Mueller's daughter and son-in-law, Monique and Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, are the sellers. The Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva houses African, South Seas and Native American art and artifacts, along with antiquities from Greece, Italy, Egypt, Persia and central Asia, according to its website.
In another case involving a Sotheby’s antiquities auction in
Sotheby's has countered in court filings that the old French colonial laws don't apply, that there's no strong evidence the piece was removed after 1970, and that even if it was stolen, federal authorities can't force its return under U.S. law without proving that Sotheby's and the statue's owner knew it was stolen when they brought it to the United States to be auctioned.
The ancient statue's twin, which U.S. authorities contend was removed at the same time from the temple at Koh Ker when it was severed from its pedestal, leaving matching feet behind, was bought by Norton Simon in 1976. It's now a highlight of the Asian antiquities gallery of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.