An elaborately carved, U-shaped stone trophy was returned to Mexico after it nearly went up for sale at an Austrian auction house, the Art Newspaper reported Wedneday. The trophy, which resembles a yoke and is carved from sedimentary stone, is an ornate representation of the protective gear worn around players’ waists during the Mesoamerican ball game pelota.
The artifact was recovered by the Mexican Embassy in Austria prior to the sale with help from Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico City, according to a statement from the Mexican government.
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The Ball Game, as it was simply called, was played in varying styles by every major Mesoamerican civilization both for fun and sometimes with religious significance. In most versions, teams of two or three would use their hips, shoulders, knees, and elbows to keep the ball in play or score points by getting a solid rubber ball through a vertical stone hoop set high on a flat stone wall. The long rectangular courts were often found in a city’s “sacred precinct”, according to the World History Encyclopedia.
Since the inauguration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018, Mexican authorities have aggressively, and often successfully, sought the return of cultural artifacts from auction houses and museums. While Mexican officials were unable to stop an auction of pre-Columbian artifacts in Germany in 2021 and Paris last year, they have organized the return of artifacts from the United States, Belgium, and the Netherlands.