Red Flags in Paris: Half of Sotheby’s Barbier-Mueller Pre-Colombian Sale Lacks Provenance

This week we have a guest post from M. Frechette, an astute college senior majoring in art history with an interest in international cultural property law and art markets. During her travels in Latin America, Frechette grew frustrated with the lack of native archeological material in national museums compared to the artifacts circulating on the North American and European markets. Lately, she’s been helping us dig into this week’s auction of a major private collection of Pre-Colombian antiquities in Paris. Here’s what she found:

Museums and private collectors across the globe are buzzing with excitement over the March 22nd auction at Sotheby’s Paris of the Barbier-Mueller Collection of Pre-Columbian Art.  But they should be concerned that almost half (119 out of 246) of the artifacts from present-day Latin America have no stated provenance before 1970.

Peru has announced it is seeking the return of 67 objects in the collection that it claims were illegally exported from the country, which has required government permission for the export of archaeological material since 1822. Judging from our analysis of the collection, it is likely the first of several claims.

UPDATE: The government of Guatemala has made a claim for 13 objects in the collection. “You cannot allow private collectors to unlawfully enrich themselves at the expense of the Americas’ pre-Hispanic cultural heritage,” the culture ministry said in a statement

UPDATE 3/21: Mexico has called on Sotheby’s to halt the auction, citing 51 objects in the collection as Mexico’s property. The government has also said that 79 of the 130 objects of Mexican origin being offered for sale are “handicrafts,” i.e. modern fakes. Sotheby’s insists it will go forward with the auction, saying it “thoroughly researched the provenance of this collection and we are confident in offering these works for auction.” The auction house acknowledged it has “had dialogue with several nations and given careful consideration to their concerns about this sale, and we continue to welcome discussion regarding any new information on specific issues.”

UPDATE 3/21: Costa Rica has also claimed objects in the auction, the New York Times reports

UPDATE 3/22: Nord Wennerstrom calls the results of Day 1 sales “a train wreck” for Sotheby’s: 87 of the 172 lots failed to sell amid claims from Latin American countries and indications that several lots are modern fakes. Others suggest the asking prices were overly optimistic. 


The Barbier-Mueller Collection was built over a century, but major additions to it were made after 1992. According to the official Sotheby’s publicity, the works were gathered primarily for aesthetic purposes, though Sotheby’s emphasizes, “many possess historic provenance.” In an interview earlier this month, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller described being inspired to add to the collection of his father-in-law, Josef Mueller, while mounting an exhibition to commemorate the Columbus quincentenary in 1992. “I became really caught up in the project, and started visiting specialist dealers to complete the collection,” Barbier-Mueller recalled. “Provenance was always a concern.”

Looking at some samples from the collection, one can see why.

Maya polychrome vessels: Lts 41,121, 122, 214-219, 222 & 223. Estimate: between 18,000 and 40,000 Euros each 

641PF1340_6JSRW_1_GREY.jpg.thumb.385.385Of the 11 painted Maya vessels from Guatemala and Mexico, nine have no listed provenance before 1986.

The market for Maya polychrome vessels developed around 1970 as looting of ancient Maya burial sites became more sophisticated and widespread. The growth of trafficking networks in Mexico and Central America prompted Guatemala’s 1966 Decree No. 425 – Law on the Protection and Conservation of Monuments and Mexico’s 1972 Federal Law on Archaeological, Artistic and Historic Monuments and Zones, which clarified claims of national ownership on all archeological material.

261PF1340_6JSRP_2_GREY.jpg.thumb.385.385Six of the Mayan vessels passed through Merrin Gallery between 1986 and 1990. The Merrin Gallery was also the source of a bronze statue of Zeus that was returned to Italy in 2010. The stated provenance claimed Edward H. Merrin had purchased it from a Swiss collection in the 1960s; in fact, it had been stolen from the Museo Nazionale Romano in 1980The Merrin Gallery also appears frequently in the business records of Sicilian antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina, who has been charged with trafficking in looted Classical antiquities. In dealing with Pre-Colombian material, his first passion, Merrin “certainly handled masterpieces that should never have been removed from their original sites,” Ian Graham, a Mayan expert and director at the Harvard Peabody Museum, told the New York Times in 1989, the same year the Mayan vessels began passing through the gallery. Merrin’s response: ”Look, I have four children, I have a position in society, I am active in a number of charities – I’m simply not interested in anything illegal.” In 2005, Ed and Samuel Merrin were both charged with conducting a 10-year scheme to defraud their customers who collected Pre-Colombian art.

Ulúa Marble Vase: Lot 34. Estimate: 40,000 – 50,000 Euros

103PF1340_6JSRZ_1_White.jpg.thumb.385.385Scholarship has explicitly linked the market demand for Ulúa marble vases, such as Lot 34 for sale in the upcoming auction, to the growth of illegal looting networks and pillaging in Travasiá, Honduras. Anthropologists Christina Luke and John Henderson have investigated the direct and detrimental affects museum and private purchases have on this ancient Mayan center, and the connection is unmistakably apparent: “Looting at Travesía for marble vases increased dramatically during the period when more and more marble vases appeared in galleries and when they were stolen from well-known collections.”  (See Luke, Christina and John Henderson The Plunder of the Ulúa Valley, Honduras, and a Market Analysis for Its Antiquities)

Despite the 1997 Honduran Decree 220-97 that retroactively claimed “the state was the official owner of all cultural patrimony” (Luke and Henderson, 149) the market demand continues to fuel the destruction of a rich cultural site — and production of modern forgeries. Lot 34, with no listed provenance before 2004 and estimated to sell for between 40,000 and 50,000 Euros, may well be a contemporary example of how rising prices are promoting both the devastation and falsification of ancient Mayan cultural knowledge.

Red Lists Raise Red Flags

urlLatin America has not been in the spotlight for cultural heritage claims to the same degree as Italy or Greece in recent years, but the illicit trade of pre-Columbian objects is a serious and continuing problem for countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil and Peru. Along with UNESCO’s international effort to increase protection of cultural heritage, Latin American countries passed a flurry of national legislation in the 1970s to establish legal ownership of cultural property.

More recently, the International Council of Museums has published several Red Lists of Endangered Cultural Objects. Compiled by an international group of cultural heritage professionals to combat the illicit trade and rampant looting of national artifacts, “all the categories of objects in the Red List are protected by legislation and banned from export, and may under no circumstances be imported or put on sale.”  ICOM could not be more explicit: “The Red List is an appeal to museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors not to acquire these objects.”

A glance though the Barbier-Mueller catalogue shows quite a bit of overlap with the Red Lists — from Nayarit and Olmec figures to Gran Nicoya stone grindstones, many of the categories of objects on sale in Paris on March 22nd are internationally recognized as the product of rampant looting.

As with all ancient burial objects, the polychrome vessels and Ulúa marble vases are “essential to the understanding of the Maya belief system, mythology, and ideology.” (ICOM Red List: Latin America, p.8)  Yet as these invaluable pieces are illegally looted they become untraceable to their original locations and all context is lost.  Without context, our understanding of one of the most advanced cultures of ancient Mesoamerica is irreparably crippled.

Frechette graduates in May and will soon be looking for gainful employment. Send any leads to us at and we’ll pass them along.

UPDATE: See Donna Yates’ excellent analysis of the Barbier-Mueller collection here and here.


9 responses to “Red Flags in Paris: Half of Sotheby’s Barbier-Mueller Pre-Colombian Sale Lacks Provenance

  1. Dr. Geoffrey A. Smith

    While i agree with most you have written, Vitriolic is rarely productive. The fact that the provenance is not listed in the catalogue does not preclude there being a legitimate chain of ownership. Also a published provenance is not always an accurate one. When you finish your dissertation and are out in the real world, it is not a fault to temper the anti-collector rhetoric of the AAA if you have a desire to be effective.

  2. Um…what “vitriol” are you referring to here? Looks like a pretty fair assessment to me. Unless you think that galleries and collectors are likely to feel that being told that a preponderance of evidence points to a looted past for objects they own is insulting, rather than simply, you know, the truth.

  3. If a major auction house like Sotheby’s wants to truly demonstrate that it has learned from its recent embarrasing mistakes and really cares about reform, the least they can do is give some indication of recent ownership history (aka provenance) up front to minimize the potential for further scandal and legal action. If an unbroken chain stretches back beyond 1970, even better, but why hide information that only makes one look suspicious?
    Why should ‘caveat emptor’ be the modus operandi of the purportedly legitimate portion of the trade, as top end auction houses espouse?

  4. Dr. Geoffrey A. Smith

    There was no prepondance just the student’s opinion and conclusion that a lack of Provence in a listing equates to a lack of Provence of an item . And that may not be the case. The auction house will continue to make their “embarrassing mistakes” as long as they continue to be making their profits.

  5. Pingback: Mexico and Guatemala join Peru in claims against Barbier-Mueller Pre-Columbian art collection | Nord on Art

  6. Sotheby’s has a history of selling stolen art. They are getting caught more and more. Art stolen from museums in war zones show up in their catalogue more than once. Sometimes Sotheby’s gives it back, sometimes they go on with the sale. Here’s a link:

  7. The looters were academics 100 years ago. Context was not an issue. Collecting was done to enrich museum holdings. Now the stigma is on dealers and auction houses. Are museums and academics now exempt from criticism ? Context has been lost because of many factors. It’s time to rethink things !

  8. Dr Geoffrey Smith

    Years ago it was the museum’s mission to educate the public about other cultures and things. Now it becoming more the mission to facilitate research and generate publications… Less for the general public. Perhaps pushing too far in the research direction we are neglecting the public who support us.

  9. Pingback: Chupícuaro “Large Figurine” Type | Exhibition Inquisition

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