Uncertainty in the French capital ensues after Ecuadorian ambassador pulls Pre-Colombian art from Paris salerooms

Pieces were seized from three auction houses, a lawsuit is now pending


The future of the French capital as a major centre for the sale of pre-Colombian art has been thrown into question since Ecuador seized a number of items in auctions last year. However, the most recent test, a sale of works from other South American countries last month, passed without any problems. A court case with Ecuador is still pending and until it is resolved, no Ecuadorian items are being sold in Paris.

The problems started at the end of last year, when the Ambassador of Ecuador, Juan Salazar Sancisi, who was posted to Paris in May 2003, had 30 pieces seized from Tajan, Christie’s and Artcurial. The auction houses were ordered to prove that the pieces had been legally exported from Ecuador. “This is the first time this has happened in my 20 years in the trade,” said Artcurial’s specialist Jacques Blazy. Among the pieces taken from the auction house were a ritual axe in green serpentine and a zoomorphic vase.

“Since we passed a law in 1960 that forbids the unauthorised export of archaeological pieces and objects discovered at excavations, our policy has always been to promote our heritage. But this is the first time we have done something so extensive,” said German Ortega, the embassy’s Cultural Attaché.

Christie’s was obliged to withdraw 10 pieces from its December sale. Christie’s lawyer Philippe Plantade said, “Ecuadorian law is not enforceable in France. France has not ratified Unidroit [the convention which allows a State to demand the return of a cultural item held in another State], even though it has signed it.”

The problems may have been inadvertently sparked by Tajan’s new pre-Colombian art specialist, the dealer Diego Veintimilla, who is of Ecuadorian extraction and so was known to the embassy: previous sales in Paris of Ecuadorian material had passed off without incident.

In a curious twist to the story, the Ambassador has offered anything he acquires in the lawcourts to the Musée du Quai Branly, the new Tribal art museum under construction near the Eiffel Tower. “A number of Latin American countries are taking a great interest in the Quai Branly project,” said its director Stéphane Martin. “A number of embassies, including Ecuador, have considered making loans, although generally we approach them. For example we are very interested in a piece in the Quito Museum in Equador.”

According to Mr Blazy, “Ambassador Salazar Sancisi’s actions are more an individual initiative than a ‘reconquest’, but it is important that it should not spread: imagine if Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and Colombia started doing the same thing!”

This was why he invited Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peruvian ambassador in Paris and previously general secretary of UNESCO) to an early view of 150 pieces from the Monheim Collection which Artcurial was offering for sale last month. This collection was built up before 1965, well before Peruvian patrimony laws were in force. The Monheim pieces sold well. A variety of other objects from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic were auctioned without incident.

As for Colombia, in June last year, the Colombian government spotted a Tairona jewel in the catalogue for Christie’s tribal and pre-Colombian art sale, and demanded its return. However, the piece had left Colombia before 1870 so could not be claimed; it was preempted by the French State for the Quai Branly for Euros228,250.

European buyers scoop Old Master drawings

European collectors accounted for nine of the top 10 lots in Christie’s sale of Old Master and 19th-century drawings held by Christie’s on 18 March during the Semaine du Dessin, with an American museum taking the other top lot. The highest price was made for Preziosi’s Album of 79 views of Malta, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, which was estimated at E70/100,000 but sold for E228,250. The Bibilothèque Nationale preempted a number of works by Bouchardon from the collection of an oil tycoon in Ohio but brought to Paris for sale. Another import, the collection of the Yorkshire collector Massimo Brooke, flew away, with some pieces making 10 times estimate. The main disappointment was the failure of an attractive portrait on blue paper by Piazzetta, although there is apparently after-sale interest. “Important works by secondary artists performed well,” said Nicolas Schwed of Christie’s, pointing out the “beautiful Holy family” by Michel Corneille II, which sold for E72,850. “Prices were strong from top to bottom,” said Mr Schwed.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ecuadorian ambassador pulls art from Paris salerooms'