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Máscara de "Teotihuacán" lote 23. Photo: Christie's.
Mask from "Teotihuacán" lot 23. Photo: Christie's.

Mexico accuses Christie's of auctioning stolen pre-Hispanic artifacts, some of them fakes

The fight against national plundering has been going on for a long time in the Aztec country, but international auctions are too high a hurdle. 

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The important thing is not the fake pieces, but the 27 remaining pre-Hispanic objects that do belong to Mexican heritage and whose auction, to be held in Paris by the prestigious Christie's auction house on Feb. 9, will mean that they will be lost forever to a private collection.

Why? Because these masks and other pre-Hispanic vessels and utensils, whose provenance is more than opaque, will acquire legal ownership when they are sold at auction. Then, there will be no way of returning them to Mexico. 

This is the fight being waged by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which has been joined by the Attorney General's Office and even the Foreign Ministry, with the intention that the French government should also get involved in stopping an auction that French President Emmanuel Macron's government is washing its hands of. 

"This is an unacceptable act for Mexicans, these are national assets and cannot be traded," INAH director general Diego Prieto Hernández told a press conference on Feb. 2.

According to Prieto, French legislation on art and auctions facilitates looting, since Mexico does not have bilateral agreements with France like it has with the United States, where it is required to certify the provenance of the auctioned objects and that it is the plaintiff who proves the ownership of the pieces

"The auctions are the mechanism for laundering these goods," stressed the INAH director, who explained that the deafness of France, a country with which Mexico usually has cordial relations, even affects the Unidroit convention — the institute for the harmonisation of international law — and not even Interpol has much to do in these cases. 

The auction, entitled Quetzalcoatl, feathered serpent, offers pieces that in some cases exceed one million dollars and whose sale is a real kick in the teeth to Mexican law, which since 1972 has criminalised the export of archaeological pieces or pieces of particular relevance to the country and protected its heritage assets tooth and nail. 

However, how can one prove when, by whom and how these treasures were taken out of Mexico, especially if the looting took place before the law was passed in 1972?

Although there have been some cases of auctions in which Mexico has managed to prove the provenance of the pieces and the person responsible for their plundering has ended up in prison, as happened in Germany or the United States, the Latin American country has always had the upper hand. 

For Prieto Hernández, there are only two possible solutions to stop the looting:

The first is to "make progress in diplomatic and political relations", so that all countries enter into international agreements that oblige them to intervene in the plundering of works. 

The second is that the project for the creation of a police force dedicated to the protection of heritage and the surveillance of archaeological sites finally comes to fruition. 

"We are working with the Carabinieri in Italy, who have 50 years of experience in this field," concludes the anthropologist.

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