Mexico trying to stop antiquities sale at Sotheby’s in Paris

An ancient Mexican "Venus" ceramic statue, seen last month at Sotheby's in London. The Mexican government is trying to stop it from being auctioned at Sotheby's in Paris.
(Lefteris Petarakis/Associated Press)

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 Mexico and Central and South America.


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.

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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 UNESCO adopted an international convention aimed at protecting archaeological and cultural heritage sites and preventing the sale of looted antiquities. The Assn. of Art Museum Directors and others have adopted that date as a cutoff point in deciding whether it’s appropriate to acquire a piece that isn’t obviously stolen goods, but whose ownership history is murky. Strong evidence that a work left its original country before 1970 is seen as making an acquisition less dubious and more defensible.

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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 New York City, U.S. government lawyers, acting at the request of Cambodian officials, stopped the planned 2011 sale of a Khmer temple-guardian statue of a wrestler. Aiming to repatriate it, federal lawyers subsequently sued to wrest ownership from the European collector who had wanted to sell it.

Cambodia and the United States contend that the statue was looted after the 1970 UNESCO convention went into effect, and that even if it was taken earlier, laws enacted by French colonial authorities during the early 1900s protected the statue as national property and would give today’s Cambodian authorities ownership rights.


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.



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