Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Art, authenticity, and the market in Precolumbian antiquities

By Rosemary Joyce

Probably unnoticed by most readers of this blog, this week a major international incident exploded, pitting prestigious Mexican institutions against a French gallery, and causing social media linking archaeologists to light up.

As summarized by Art Daily, the story begins with the sale of a private collection of Mexican antiquities in Paris. Primarily from the west Mexican state of Guerrero, the collection is for the most part no different than many others with dubious origins held in private hands that consist of stone objects from the so-called Mezcala Culture. As many of my correspondents noted, archaeologists have hardly ever recovered works of this style, making Mezcala one of the prime examples of how the traffic in antiquities severs artworks from knowledge of their history and social setting. Most of us regard these things in museums as simply works of art whose origins can never be known; whether truly made in the deeper past, or created in studios operating in Mexico today to supply the world art market.

So this auction would probably have drawn no more than the usual sigh of weary sadness for what we will never know, had it not been for one of the less common items included. As described by Art Daily, this was "a major Mexican Mayan Culture seated deity, from the region of the Rio Bec? or Chen... The polychrome stucco figure is dated from the Classical Period, 550-950 AD."

That description was not universally endorsed. Archaeologists who specialize in working in the area wrote to each other, and most of the messages I received were variants of "I would normally not reach a conclusion based on photos, but in this case, I am certain".

What were we all so certain about?

To quote an official statement by the Mexican Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH):

the figure that represents a person holding an axe and shield, was elaborated with a modeling and gum-paste technique which does not present a specific cultural style according to the sculptural corpus; this way, this free-style item does not recreate any formal characteristic and/or stylistic of  Mesoamerican cultures in Mexican territory...The figure attempts to recreate the features of Prehispanic representations made in the Maya zone in Southeastern Mexico, but, the height (165.5 cms) as well as the position with the legs bent, and the laces that tie the footware, are not characteristic of this culture. The apparent erosion which can be observed was made to give it a deteriorated or antique appearance. Due to this, the conclusion is that it is a recent piece.

One prominent Mexican archaeologist, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, was quoted in Mexican news reports as saying "Ever since I saw the photo of the piece I thought: 'poor guy who buys it, they are defrauding you'. When the falsification is so evident, you can tell even from a photo. It is evident that we are dealing with a falsification". [My translation.]

And so began the fist fight. The Financial Times provides one of the best succinct summaries-- and think about why it is a business paper that is covering this:

According to Jacques Blazy, specialist for the sale, the Mexican denunciation is politically motivated, “defamatory” and “absurd”.

The statue was part of the collection of a Swiss businessman, Henry Law, and, says Blazy: “It has been widely shown, notably in the Swiss Rath Museum in 1998 [Mexique Terre des Dieux]; the catalogue introduction was written by the Mexican Ministry of Culture, so they had no problem at the time,” says Blazy, who has “total confidence in the piece”.

Behind this saga is a long-running battle between Latin-American countries and France over the sale of pre-Colombian artefacts. Mexico in particular has been demanding the return of archaeological pieces, and even had 10 lots seized from another sale at Drouot in 2008, accusing the owners of theft and handling stolen goods. But after a court battle the owners were cleared of all the charges. “So now,” says Blazy, “the Mexicans are trying a new tack by intervening after the sale.”

Everyone agrees that the piece is unique. What is at the heart of the dispute is, does that mean it should be celebrated as a great work of art-- or is it suspect due to that very distinction?

Archaeologists emphasize details that are unprecedented in any other medium: the figure is wearing sandals with some sort of cords wrapped along the lower leg. But there is nothing like this in the known artwork from Mexico; it is, however,  a familiar fastening for sandals depicted in Roman art which a contemporary artist could have drawn on, even without thinking about it.

The French art dealer plays a game of gotcha: the piece has been publicly exhibited and no one objected to it before, he says, and even cites promotion of a previous exhibition by Mexican politicians:

"It was inaugurated by the Ambassador of Mexico in that country [Switzerland] and by the then Minister of Culture of Mexico, Rafael Tovar, who in addition signed the prologue of the catalogue of the exhibition", he noted. [My translation]

This is not, note, to say that either the Ambassador or the Minister of Culture authenticated the contents of the exhibition or catalogue; at that moment, politics urged them to express positive sentiments about international collaboration raising the visibility of Mexico in Europe. But the art dealer isn't really disputing the professional assessment of the work; he is trying to convince reporters this is simply another bit of politics, part of a simmering tension between France and Mexico over a failed attempt to launch a "Year of Mexico" in France.

The real dispute here is about what authenticates an object like this.

For an archaeologist, once an object is removed from its original find spot, we cannot ever be certain that it really was found there. Once removed from that context, we actually can never authenticate a piece: we can look for details that are not consistent with the known excavated body of works that tell us it is not likely to be original, and that is what happened here.

Two archaeologists, Alejandro Castillo Estrella and Alejandro Bautista, employed by Mexico's INAH, examined the auction catalogue, and they reached the conclusion that 67 pieces were likely modern in manufacture. Bautista is quoted in Mexican news reports going into detail about what is inconsistent: the height (1.56 or 1.65 m in various reports) is wrong (substantially larger than known Maya three dimensional human sculptures); the awkward position of the limbs is wring; the way the right hand is depicted isn't like any other example in Maya art; the shield in the hands is not typical of the Maya, nor is the turban; the pendant on the chest is too large for the body. The only thing that seemed even remotely like known Maya art was the mask worn by the figure.

The argument used by the art dealer to support the authenticity of the piece uses a completely different logic: it comes from the collection of a well-known art collector; it was exhibited and published in catalogues, and never has been questioned before. It's authenticity is thus "indisputable".

This is a disagreement about what counts, and it is virtually impossible to resolve this kind of disagreement.

In 2006, I published a review of a museum exhibition on early Maya art. I identified what I called a "tension" between "objects with secure proveniences and those that, while spectacular, lack the certainty of knowledge that comes with controlled excavation", continuing that "most disturbing is the realization that many  of the securely provenienced objects included in the exhibition might be questioned because  of their unique features, if they lacked archaeological context". I quoted Jane McLaren Walsh, a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist writing about the role of  “the ‘eye’ of the connoisseur" in the study of precolumbian art:

“the problem of unique works of art, unprovenienced ‘masterworks’ remains . . . what is striking is the number of objects in both the private and public realm that have no apparent iconographic or stylistic counterparts from known archaeological contexts. . . .Yet, despite and at times because of their individuality, they are considered masterpieces . . . these ‘masterpieces’ seem often beyond suspicion or criticism.”

In the present case, the aura of the masterpiece "beyond suspicion or criticism" has been shattered. What remains is an irresolvable problem of interpretation. If the opinions of the Mexican archaeologists, echoed by many archaeologists specializing in the area, are right, then what just sold for an obscene amount of money in Paris is a piece of modern art, with no implications for our understanding of the Maya past.

But there remains that tiny chance that in this case, the unprecedented masterwork was actually torn from a setting where it was created and left more than one thousand years ago. And if that were true, then what the world-- not just the archaeological community-- has lost is the chance to understand something unique about the Maya past.

That seems far too high a price for the rest of us to pay to support the private enthusiasms of two Swiss businessmen, and the economic industry that has grown up to serve people like them.