French Auction House Calls Mexico’s Effort to Stop Sale of Pre-Columbian Artifacts ‘Nationalist Opportunism’

Less than two weeks before an auction of pre-Columbian art is due to open at the Paris-based auction house Millon, the Mexican government has demanded that the sale be called off, claiming 83 of the 148 lots are protected under law as part of Mexico’s cultural heritage.

However, the auction house told ARTnews it plans to move ahead with the sale, adding that the Mexican state’s requests for restitution are “often unsuccessful because they are based on unfounded facts.”

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“The sale of all the objects is maintained because all lots have an irreproachable origin and answer perfectly to the criteria fixed by UNESCO’s convention ratified by Mexico and France,” a spokesperson told ARTnews.“France is today one of the most rigorous countries in terms of laws governing the art market and the traceability of the provenance of objects and the Millon auction house, founded in 1928, is the guarantor of the law.”

According to a joint statement by the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) an official complaint has been filed against Millon and letters have been sent to the Legal Consultancy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Director General of International Police Affairs, and Interpol in an attempt to repatriate the works in question. 

Additionally, Mexico’s Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, has urged the auction house to consider “ethics and respect for cultural heritage” and consider “the historical, symbolic and cultural value” of the works up for sale and repatriate them to Mexico.

The auction house, evidently, was unmoved by her appeals.

“Pre-Columbian art is a global cultural beacon,” Million’s president, Alexandre Millon, told ARTnews. “Its influence should never be hindered by political obscurantism.”

Million called the effort to repatriate the works “nationalist opportunism,” and added that “revisiting the past and history in order to reclaim them through the pretext of Art is cultural nonsense.”

The Mexican Ministry of Culture has been very active in repatriating cultural artifacts and despite Millon’s comments, a number of Mexico’s requests for repatriation have been fulfilled. Earlier this month, the ministry appealed to over 100 galleries and auction houses across Europe to halt the sale of cultural goods, with one Vienna-based gallery, Galerie Zacke, agreeing to repatriate a representation of the Aztec earth god Tlaltecuhtli.

Last summer the Mexican government received 34 pre-Columbian artifacts that had been owned by an unidentified German couple and in December, 223 artifacts were repatriated to Mexico from the Netherlands. 

Since his election in 2018, Mexican president Andres Manual Lopez has actively fought for the repatriation of Mexican cultural good from across the globe with the social media campaign #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (#My heritage is not for sale).


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