Mexico Demands a Stop to Auction of 74 Pre-Columbian Artifacts

We live in a time of shifting cultural sands, reckoning simultaneously with a global community that is more interconnected than ever and the recognition of individual voices and entire nations whose histories have long been obscured. Antiquities stand at the intersection of these two movements, where global capitalism and hunger for authenticity create a voracious market for the artifacts of cultures that have been subjected to colonial rule or violence. This week, the Mexican government petitioned to halt an international sale of pre-Columbian artifacts, to take place online under the aegis of Munich-based dealer Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger.

As reported by the Art Newspaper, Mexican Secretary of Culture Alejandra Fraustro wrote to Nachfolger in an attempt to stop the auction of 74 artifacts, currently scheduled for Tuesday, September 21. The Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) has designated these objects as “national patrimony” belonging to the people of Mexico. INAH was established in 1939, with a governmental mandate to preserve Mexican cultural heritage through the cataloging and protection of monuments and buildings regarded as cultural patrimony. INAH is responsible for 110,000 historical monuments built between the 16th and 19th centuries and 29,000 of Mexico’s estimated 200,000 pre-Columbian archaeological zones.

The formation of INAH followed the imposition of a 1934 Mexican law that prohibits the export of items of archaeological importance. According to the Art Newspaper, Fraustro cited this law in the effort to halt the sale, and the culture secretary also emphasized the Mexican government’s renewed commitment to secure and reclaim works deemed to contribute to national heritage — including those potentially removed illegally or trafficked. The Nachfolger auction includes many figurines, masks, small ceramic statuaries, and carved stones identifiable as pre-Columbian deities. Estimates on the worth of various pieces range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Negotiations took a diplomatic turn, as Francisco Quiroga, Mexico’s ambassador in Germany, visited Munich this week and spoke to Francisca Bernheimer, the head of Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger and niece of the firm’s founder. There is no reported comment on the meeting from the embassy or the gallery at this time, and the sale is still currently listed as scheduled. 

According to Quiroga’s social media, several wealthy people have offered to purchase the items directly and return them to the country, but the ambassador feels such an approach would only further enable the trade of stolen artifacts and would prefer to reclaim the items under the laws in place to protect Mexico’s cultural heritage. This is reminiscent of an earlier attempt this year by the Mexican government to halt an auction at Christie’s, which included the sale of 30 objects deemed to be of authentic cultural significance, as well as claiming 3 other objects to be contemporary fabrications. During an online press conference protesting the Paris-based auction, INAH’s director-general Diego Prieto said, “The Mexican government does not and will never approve of the illegal sacking and commerce of national patrimony.”

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