Culture officials irked by pricey statue sale in Paris

The sale of a south Pacific coast pre-Columbian statue for nearly $1 million has Costa Rican officials trying to put a stop to such deals.

The sale March 22 of what was described as an anthro-zoomorphic divinity from the Diquis delta was at Sotheby’s France, a branch of the famous auction house. The archaeological piece was part of the extensive  Barbier-Mueller Collection. Sotheby’s said that sale brought 10.3 million euros ($13.3 million), a world record for pre-Columbian art

The figurine, Lot #154, was believed to have been made between 1000 and 1500 A.D., said the auction house. The culture is the same one thought responsible for Costa Rica’s giant stone balls. In all, some 300 works went to auction. Said Sotheby’s:

Comprising around 300 works from Mexico, Central and South America, this extraordinary ensemble of pre-Columbian art from The Barbier-Mueller Collection has been widely exhibited and published. Among its many masterpieces are a Chupicuaro ceramic statue (500-100 B.C.) and a Tarascan ceramic bird-shaped vase (1200-1500 A.D.) both formerly in the Guy Joussemet Collection, a Maya ceramic head (500-900 A.D.) formerly in the John Huston Collection, an Aztec stone figure of a water goddess (1300-1500) acquired by Josef Mueller in 1920, and a Maya figure, Jaina, Mexico (550-950 A.D.).

Costa Rican cultural officials were unhappy as were Peruvian representatives. The Ministerio de Cultura y Juventud said that its minster, Manuel Obregón, and Luis Peirano, the Peruvian minister of culture, met Wednesday with the French ambassador here. The ambassador is  Jean Baptiste Chauvin, who has just taken over the post.

The outcome of the meeting was an agreement to send a letter to the French government asking that action be taken to stop the sale of Costa Rican and Peruvian artifacts in that country, said the ministry.

An official request will be sent to Aurélie Filippetti, the minister of culture and communications in Paris, the ministry aid.

There were other Costa Rican artifacts in the auction. They were metates and other goods, mainly from the Nicoya Culture. Items from many other Latin countries also were represented with the various Mexican cultures dominating.

There does not seem to be a suggestion that the items auctioned in Paris were in the black market, although the ministry here used that term broadly. Sotheby’s called the collection a century old. It said:

“In 1908 and 1909 Josef Mueller acquired major works by Hodler and Cézanne in Paris. While initially focusing on Western masterpieces of universal appeal, he soon became attracted by important works of pre-Columbian art, his first purchase being an Aztec ‘water goddess’ in Paris in 1920. His son-in-law, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, a great aesthete and man of culture, brought this high standard of collecting to other fields, such as African art, Oceanic art and Cycladic Art. His dedicated focus has resulted in the well-deserved reputation for excellence that the collections have today. Mr. Barbier-Mueller and his wife Monique Barbier-Mueller (Josef Mueller’s daughter), who has pursued modern and contemporary art, have achieved one of the foremost collections of art in private hands, one defined by their sophisticated knowledge and refined eye.”

Ferdinand Hodler, who died in 1918, was a famous Swiss painter. Paul Cézanne is the famous French post-impressionist who died in 1906. Cyclades art flourished on Cyprus and on nearby islands before classical Greece.

Costa Rica passed the first law regulating trade in archaeological pieces in 1938. It declared that as of that date all artifacts found are property of the state. It called for registration of objects already in personal hands. A 1982 law prohibited the sale of such items and prohibited exportation.

The sale of the Diquis goddess may have been legal, said Obregón, according to the ministry, but the government has a responsibility to intervene in these types of situations with the goal of preserving the heritage of the country.

Sotheby’s did not say on its Web site who purchased the goddess figure. The final price was $992,012, according to the auction house. The catalogue with photos of the objects sold still is available HERE! The auction house is correct is saying that the collection is an impressive one.

The auction house said that it also has published along with a firm called  5 Continents Editions a two-volume set containing the 300 works.

“These volumes (bilingual English/French) are beautifully illustrated and feature commentary by leading international experts,” said Sotheby’s.

Costa Rica tries to enforce the heritage laws, but there are many complications. Many artifacts in the market are forged.  Communities in Nicoya produce and sell legally pieces identical to what their forebearers sold to the Mayans and Aztecs more than 1,000 years ago. Reputable shops also offer replicas of pre-Columbian pieces, and they are labeled as such.

In addition, a visitor to the Sunday flea market adjacent to the San José municipal building will see many examples of pre-Columbian art. some could be replicas.  Others might have been stolen from Costa Rican families that have guarded their collections for years.

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