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Column: A looted Maya sculpture sparks a storm over its planned sale at auction

The large carved relief showing a Maya king’s headdress with an owl motif is among works to be sold at auction in Paris.
The large carved relief showing a Maya king’s headdress with an owl motif is among works to be sold at auction in Paris.
(Millon and Assoc.)

French President Emmanuel Macron last year called for looted African artworks housed in France to be returned to the home countries from which they had been stolen. Now, he might want to add Maya art of the Americas to the lengthy list deserving restitution.

A major, long-lost stone carving of a bird headdress dating from AD 736, made during the classical heyday of the powerful city-state of Piedras Negras in what is today Guatemala, was scheduled to go on the auction block in Paris next week. Long sequestered in a private collection, the magnificent bas-relief carries an estimate of $27,000 to $39,000.

The sculpture was almost certainly stolen in the early 1960s from the ancient Maya site. It passed through the inventory of a prominent Los Angeles gallery on its way to Paris. Its illicit history is no secret, yet the sale in France is scheduled to proceed in broad daylight.

According to Soy 502, a Guatemalan news website, the country’s Ministry of Culture and Sport last month demanded the sculpture’s return, asserting that the relief was “smuggled abroad illegally” more than 50 years ago. During an excavation by Italian-born German archaeologist Teobert Maler begun in 1898, the carving was documented in photographs in Piedras Negras, southeast of Palenque and just across the modern border with Mexico.

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Maler’s extensive set of photographs is housed in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, providing unparalleled documentation of the Maya site. The sculpture fragment being sold in Paris is identical to an upper section of Stela 9, broken into three large pieces when it was found and one of many reliefs documented in Maler’s pictures.

David Stuart is professor of Mesoamerican art at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Mesoamerican Center there and of the school’s academic research center in Antigua, Guatemala. “Piedras Negras was one of the great Maya sites with a remarkable sculpture tradition, thanks to the good limestone found in the region,” he said in a telephone interview. “The fragment shows a portion of the amazing headdress worn by the king.”

Stuart published studies of Piedras Negras in a 2004 volume of the “Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions,” an ongoing Harvard research project. The Maya site was extensively looted in the early 1960s by laborers from logging camps in the nearby Mexican town of Tenosique, Stuart said. The market for pre-Columbian antiquities was rapidly expanding, and theft from archaeological sites throughout Latin America was on the rise. Numerous objects from Piedras Negras turned up on the black market in Mexico City.

The work scheduled to sell Sept. 18 through the Paris auction house Millon is from the collection of Manichak and Jean Aurance, who began acquiring pre-Columbian art in the 1970s. The relief sculpture is a nearly 2-foot-tall fragment of a large limestone stela, a commemorative slab carved to mark the warrior ruler’s authority. It shows a stylized owl with deeply set eyes and a sharply protruding beak.

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A crowning array of sumptuous feathers has been broken off and lost. To Stuart’s knowledge, the other pieces of the stela remain missing.

“I don’t believe any of the fragments have turned up — until now,” Stuart said.

A so-called “Spearthrower Owl,” the extravagant bird on the headdress derives from an image familiar at Teotihuacan, the vast temple and municipal complex northeast of Mexico City. Stuart explained that the elaborate regalia of Maya kings would sometimes cautiously reference the larger and more powerful city-state to their north as a means for enhancing their own potency — muscle by association.

“It’s almost a hieroglyphic form in 3-D,” he said.

The Aurances purchased the work early in their collecting years from a well-known Parisian gallery of African, Oceanic and pre-Columbian art run by Pierre Langlois, who died in 2015. Langlois bought the sculpture in the 1960s from prominent Los Angeles art dealer Earl Stendahl, whose gallery first dealt in Modern art and later specialized in pre-Columbian objects, originally at the old Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard and later in a historic Hillside Avenue home in Hollywood.

Although it is unknown how Stendahl came across it, the sculpture is one of at least two from the looted site that were then in his possession. In 1964 Stendahl lent a second Piedras Negras stela, dedicated to the same Maya king, to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the museum bought the carved sculptural relief four years later.

Stendahl Galleries, operated by three generations of the founder’s family over 106 years, closed in 2017. Extensive gallery records are now housed at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in Washington.

Donna Yates, an archaeologist specializing in looted antiquities and who teaches at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, concurs with the Guatemalan ministry’s demand for the sculpture’s return.

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“There was no legal way for the stela to leave Guatemala in the 1960s or after,” she wrote this week on her website, Anonymous Swiss Collector. The blog’s grimly witty name refers to a common provenance identification used to shield questionably sourced antiquities.

Formally, Yates is a lecturer in antiquities trafficking and art crime at the university’s School of Social and Political Sciences. In an email she pointed to a 1947 Guatemalan law, Decree 425, that made it illegal to modify or move Maya monuments and prohibited their export.

“The absolute only way for [the stela] to have left Guatemala was in complete violation of Guatemalan law,” she noted.

The Millon sale catalog does not identify the object as a fragment of Stela 9, which raises the question of whether or not due diligence was brought to bear before the widely published work was accepted for auction. Reached by telephone in Glasgow, Yates said, “I can only speculate, but either the auction house did poor due diligence or knew but didn’t care. I’m not sure which of the two I’d prefer to be true.”

Romain Beot of Millon’s pre-Columbian department and Serge Reynes, a pre-Columbian specialist with the firm Origine Expert engaged to examine items in the sale, did not respond to The Times’ email inquiries.

The Millon sale was scheduled to take place at Drouot, a large and prominent Paris auction house. Early Wednesday morning, Drouot responded to Yates on Twitter claiming that the sculpture would be withdrawn from the sale, although no formal statement has been issued.

Late Wednesday, however, the Guatemalan Embassy in Paris issued a statement saying that an agreement had been reached to withdraw the stela fragment from the sale. Unspecified negotiations with the sellers are underway.

UT Austin’s Stuart said that artifacts from Piedras Negras were instrumental in determining a critical feature of Maya art: Its complex imagery and writing were not just celestial signs or mythological representations but also recorded specific historical events. Running counter to prevailing archaeological opinion, Russian American Mayanist scholar Tatiana Proskouriakoff used her study of the area in the 1930s to begin the seemingly impossible task of deciphering ancient Maya writing. (She was buried at the site in 1998.) Stuart’s own groundbreaking work of the past 30 years has been built on that breakthrough.

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“It was a key site in recording the history of Maya culture,” Stuart said. “What happened to it is a sad story.”

The story’s next chapter continues to unfold.

Updates:
11:52 AM, Sep. 12, 2019: This article was updated to include news of a statement from the Guatemalan Embassy in Paris.

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