German auction of Latin American antiquities goes ahead, but many works fail to sell

Ambassadors from eight countries—Mexico, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama and Peru—whose heritage was included in the sale launched a united front against it, with calls for Unesco to intervene

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A green nephrite Olmec mask of a dignitary, around 1500-600 BC, offered for sale at Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger, did not reach its reserve price

A green nephrite Olmec mask of a dignitary, around 1500-600 BC, offered for sale at Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger, did not reach its reserve price

A controversial auction of pre-Colombian artefacts went ahead in Germany on Tuesday, even though diplomats from seven Latin American countries supported a Mexican bid to halt the sale.

Last week, Alejandra Fraustro, the Mexican Secretary of Culture, sent a letter to Francisca Bernheimer, the director of the Munich-based dealer, Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger, identifying 74 works in the sale as “national patrimony”. Mexican authorities soon after contacted the German government directly, and ambassadors from Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama and Peru—countries which also had works in the sale—launched a united front against the auction. In total, the sale catalogue listed more than 300 items from Latin America.

This morning, the eight diplomats held a joint press conference calling for the auction to be cancelled, for some of the works to be repatriated and for the auction house to provide further details on the provenance of the pieces. The Ambassador of Panama—which had seven pieces listed—said those involved in the sale should “be ashamed of themselves” and said his government was calling for the intervention of Unesco in the matter.

But the sale went ahead, and the Mexican newspaper, El Universal, reported that of the 67 pieces in the auction described as Mexican, only 36 had been sold. The newspaper noted that a decorated axe dating from approximately 1500-600 AD with a reserve price of €14,000 sold for €16,000, while a figurine believed to be Olmec sold for €12,000 off a reserve price of €10,000. An Olmec mask, which was one of the highlights of the sale catalogue with an estimate of €100,000, did not achieve its reserve, however.

The auction house did not release a statement on the sale and the Mexican National Institute for Archeology and History did not return a request for comment.

Daniel Salinas Cordova, a Mexican archaeologist and commentator based in Germany said on social media that he was not surprised at the outcome of the sale. The publicity surrounding the event, he suggested, “could well be due to concerns that some of the items were not supplied with sufficient information” about their provenance.

This week the Mexican government successfully halted a smaller sale of antiquities to have been held in Rome.

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