The government of México and a French auction house are disputing the authenticity of a Maya statue that just sold for $4.2 million.
México says it’s a fake. The auction house stands by its sale.
The dispute could very well be argued in Costa Rica where many statues and other artifacts claim an ancient origin. And there really is no easy way of telling.
In the case of the Mayan statue, México authorities base their claim of falsity to the garments being worn by the statute. They are out of place based on the time period, they said. To prove the case one way or the other involves scientific tests that are not always reliable.
Many Costa Ricans have miniature museums with extensive and uncatalogued collections of ancient ceramics. Many of these collections predate the modern laws against private ownership of such materials.
Yet, many of the same figures and pots can be found at the Sunday flea market in Sabana Este. Are they stolen? Are they copies? Are they fresh from some unrecorded find?
A former director of the Museo Nacional lost her job because her family kept an extensive collection of pre-Columbian ceramics and other artifacts. She failed to report the materials, officials said. Yet the collection may be legal.
Museum officials periodically raid a location and carry off pots, figures and even those unusual stone balls that are a
hallmark of early south Pacific culture. Sometimes they need a flatbed truck.
Clay artifacts can be dated to some extent by thermoluminescence, which measures the radiation put out when the object is heated. However, there is debate over the accuracy. And delicate statues might suffer major damage from the technique.
When the early Costa Ricans made a statue they also used grass and other plant fibers to fortify the clay. Radiocarbon dating can be used on organic materials. That also is a measure of the carbon 14 isotope remaining in the object. That requires destruction of the material, but sometimes plant pieces can be removed without obviously damaging the artifact.
Neither of these methods will help when an expat is challenged leaving the country or entering his or her home country with what looks like an archaeological piece.
Taking heritage materials from Latin countries is a no-no. Several San José craftsmen produce outstanding replicas of ancient statues. Artisans in the village of San Vicente de Nicoya have been producing pottery for 4,000 years. First for the Mayans and inhabitants of the Valley of México and now for tourists.
Archaeologists also applaud eBay for creating a platform where many fake pieces can be sold, thereby taking pressure off the originals.
For expats and tourists, however, the best protection is a bill of sale with a clear description stating that the piece is a reproduction.