Once again, a prominent auction house is taking advantage of French law to sell ancient American artifacts. In addition to pre-Columbian artifacts, the sale also contained several lots of items, many of them sacred items, from the Taino people. Despite a joint declaration signed by several Central American countries condemning the sale, intense media scrutiny, a petition on change.org signed by almost 45,000 people, and an in-person protest the day of the sale, Christie’s held the auction on November 10th. Christie’s justified the sale by stating that it carefully researches the provenance of each item and that the consigner must produce proof of ownership.
Others have already written about how well (or not) major auction houses actually research provenance before putting items on the block. Not to mention how often provenance is faked to hide the true origins of an artifact. The larger question revolves around the ownership of cultural heritage items, particularly those that are sacred. Especially disturbing was Christie’s argument that the Taino items could be sold because the Taino people were “extinct” and therefore there was no one left to have any type of ownership claim. This is patently untrue as there is a thriving community of Taino people who have also publicly condemned the sale of their sacred items.
Interestingly, of the 137 lots, a third of them went unsold. There was no official explanation, but it begs the question as to whether collectors are becoming more sensitive to the issues around ownership of ancient artifacts, particularly those that are considered sacred by communities that are still in existence. Some of that sensitivity may be due to an increased recognition that the availability of these items were the result of colonization and colonialism and properly belong with their communities of origin. But I suspect that much of the lack of sales is grounded in collectors not wanting to purchase an item that would either make them the subject of public scrutiny or an item that the collector might have to forfeit because of lack of legal title.