Tag Archives: Christina Luke

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 ChasingAphrodite@gmail.com and we’ll pass them along.

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

Scoop: Turkey asks Getty, Met, Cleveland and Dumbarton Oaks to Return Dozens of Antiquities

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, Jason reports on Turkey’s bid to repatriate dozens of allegedly looted antiquities in American museums.

The requests include 10 objects at the J. Paul Getty Museum; 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 21 objects at the Cleveland Musuem of Art; and the Sion Treasure at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks.

Below we’ve provided the complete article. In the coming days, we’ll be providing additional details on the objects sought at each of the museums.

Turkey asks U.S. museums for return of antiquities

The Getty and the New York Met are among the U.S. institutions the Turkish government has contacted over artifacts it believes were smuggled out of the country.

By Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times

8:48 PM PDT, March 30, 2012The government of Turkey is asking American museums to return dozens of artifacts that were allegedly looted from the country’s archaeological sites, opening a new front in the search for antiquities smuggled out of their original countries through an illicit trade.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Cleveland Museum of Art and Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection are among the institutions that the Turkish government has contacted, officials say.

Turkey believes the antiquities were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country after the passage of a 1906 law that gave the state ownership of antiquities in the ground.

Inspired by the success of its Mediterranean neighbors Italy and Greece, Turkey is taking a more aggressive stance toward its claims, many of which were first made decades ago.

“Turkey is not trying to start a fight,” said Murat Suslu, Turkey’s director general for cultural heritage and museums. “We are trying to develop … cooperation and we hope these museums will also understand our point of view.”

Turkey is presenting the museums with supporting evidence and has threatened to halt all loans of art to those institutions until they respond to the claims. Loans have already been denied to the Met, a Turkish official said.

American museums’ antiquities collections have been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years as evidence emerged of their ties to an illicit trade in artifacts found in archaeological sites around the world.

Confronted with that evidence, the Getty, the Met, the Cleveland, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Princeton University Art Museum returned more than 100 looted objects to Italy and Greece, changed their acquisition policies and formed collaboration agreements that allow for loans to replace acquisitions of suspect material.

But new evidence continues to emerge, underscoring that the scope of the problem is far wider. In January, Italy announced that it had recovered an additional 200 objects and fragments from the Met and Princeton after they were tied to an ongoing criminal investigation of Italian antiquities dealer Edoardo Almagia and Princeton antiquities curator Michael Padgett.

None of the museums facing requests from Turkey would release a list of the contested objects in their collections, but The Times obtained a partial list from Turkish officials of what the country is asking for. Judging from publicly available records, most of the objects were acquired by the museums since the 1960s and have little or no documented ownership history before that, suggesting they could have come from illicit excavations.

Statue of a Muse. From Cremna, Turkey, circa 200 AD. (JPGM 94.AA.22)

The 10 Getty objects sought by Turkey were acquired from dealers, auction houses or collectors for more than $1 million between 1968 and 1994 and include four marble muses now on display in the Getty Villa’s Basilica gallery. According to ownership histories provided by the Getty in accordance with its reformed antiquities policy, several originated with Elie Borowski or Nicolas Koutoulakis, two antiquities dealers known to have ties to the illicit trade.

The Getty’s talks with Turkey began in the 1990s, government officials said, and gained steam under the directorship of interim museum director David Bomford, who left the Getty in February.

“We expect those discussions to continue and while they do, we will not be getting into specifics,” said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

The 18 contested objects at the Met are all from the private collection of Norbert Schimmel, a longtime Met trustee who died in 1990. The museum acquired the Schimmel collection in 1989, and several of the contested objects are now highlights of the museum’s Ancient Near East Galleries.

A Hittite gold pendant of a goddess with a child, circa 1400 BCE from Central Anatolia. (MMA 1989.281.12)

Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met, initially denied the museum had received a request for specific objects. He later acknowledged in a statement that Turkey had requested information about the 18 objects in September, adding that the museum is “in the process of providing” that information. Turkish officials say the Met’s only response has been to write a letter to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

At Dumbarton Oaks inWashington, D.C., ancient silver plates and other decorative objects known as the Sion Treasure are among the items Turkey is seeking to recover. The treasure was reportedly found in the early 1960s in an ancient burial mound in Kumluca, Turkey. It was acquired by the museum in 1966 from a private collector who bought them that same year from George Zakos, an antiquities dealer with documented ties to the illicit trade.

Paten with Cross, from the Sion Treasure. (BZ.1963.36.3)

Turkey has been asking for the return of the treasure since 1968, hoping to reunite the objects with the rest of the treasure, which is in a museum in Antalya, on Turkey’s southwest coast.

Twenty-one objects are being sought from the Cleveland Museum, which Turkish officials say has not responded to their inquiries. A museum spokeswoman declined to comment or release a list of contested objects.

Turkey has long sought the return of objects taken illegally from its borders, with occasional success.

Most famously, the country’s government fought a six-year legal battle with the Met for the return of the Lydian Hoard, a collection of goods looted from a burial mound in western Turkey. (It, too, had passed through the hands of Zakos.) The Met agreed to return the objects in 1993 after evidence emerged that museum officials had been aware of the material’s illicit origins and sought to hide it. To the chagrin of Turkish authorities, soon after its return a key piece of the treasure was stolen from the local museum to which it was returned.

CMA 1942.204

A similar battle played out between Turkey and the Boston MFA over the Roman statue Weary Herakles. Turkey requested the statue’s return in the 1990s after finding its bottom half in an excavation in Perge. The MFA had purchased the top half in 1981 jointly with New York collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White. The MFA’s piece has been known to fit the bottom half in Turkey since 1992, but the museum only returned it last September as part of a broader cultural cooperation agreement.

In hopes of avoiding such protracted disputes, Turkey adopted a more aggressive stance in 2010, barring loans to institutions harboring contested objects. The Art Newspaper reported earlier this month that two British museums have recently been denied loans.

“It’s part of a broader shift in the government saying, ‘culture matters to us,'” said Christina Luke, a lecturer in archaeology at Boston University. While working in Turkey over the last decade, Luke has seen Turkey make major investments in regional cultural sites, efforts to educate children about the value of their heritage and attempts to clarify and strengthen the country’s cultural policies.

“Turkey is offended because of having insincere responses to her claims,” said Turkish official Suslu. “Turkey has been fighting against illicit trafficking of cultural objects since the Late Ottoman Period. Many ways were tried during the past years but they were not sufficient.”