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Mexico and Guatemala join Peru in claims against Barbier-Mueller Pre-Columbian art collection – UPDATED WITH SALE RESULTS

March 21, 2013
Detail - Lot 26. TWO-PART TEOTIHUACAN INCENSARIO, MEXICO

Detail – Lot 26. TWO-PART TEOTIHUACAN INCENSARIO, MEXICO

UPDATE3 : It’s over – the endurance test that was Sotheby’s auction of Pre-Columbian artifacts from the Barbier-Mueller collection ended as inauspiciously as it began – in the final session, 79 of 151 lots failed to sell. A smattering of bidders in the room and on the telephone purchased multiple lots, frequently for less than the low estimate (the final lot, estimated at €15,000-18,000 sold for a hammer price of €2,800!). The little Snood-like Mochica figure below (Lot 293), sold for a hammer price of €45,000 against a €20,000-25,000 estimate – one of the few works that elicited bidders’ interests.

A post-sale press release included the following:

Guillaume Cerutti, President-Directeur General, Sotheby’s France, said: “With a final total of more than €10 million, this sale established a new world record for a sale of Pre-Columbian Art. Despite having achieved less than expected, these results are good considering the context in which the sale unfolded [emphasis added]. High prices were achieved for the many iconic pieces which reflect the extraordinary quality of the collection.”

Perhaps potential buyer saw through Sotheby’s attempts to gloss over provenance issues with phrases like “this magnificent, century-old collection” and the “Collection has been widely exhibited and published.”  Sotheby’s can claim a small victory for having sold the two highest estimated lots.  However, in the end 165 of 313 lots failed and the sale will likely be judged a mess.

Lot 293. MASQUE-PERSONNAGE À DEUX NATTESCULTURE MOCHICA NORD DU PÉROU, 200-700 AP. J.-C.,Mochica copper mask, Northern Peru, h. 27 cm ; 10 1/2 in Estimate: 20,000-25,000

Lot 293. MASQUE-PERSONNAGE À DEUX NATTES
CULTURE MOCHICA
NORD DU PÉROU
200-700 AP. J.-C.
Mochica copper mask, Northern Peru
h. 27 cm ; 10 1/2 in
Estimate: €20,000-25,000. This lot sold for a hammer price of €45,000 (€55,500 with the buyer’s premium).

UPDATE 2: The second part of the sale concluded with 27 of 63 lots unsold.  One telephone bidder purchased the two most expensive lots in the sale – Lot 137 and Lot 160 – along with Lot 144.  Collectively those lots made a hammer price of €3.275 million (or €3,936,500 with the buyer’s premium).

UPDATE 1: The first part of the sale has just concluded. Results: of the 109 lots on offer, 59 failed to sell. Buyers are staying away in droves. Negative pre-sale publicity, specifically calls from three countries to repatriate works they allege to be looted, didn’t help.  In addition, Mexico claims more than 50% of the works sourced from their country are “handicrafts” – i.e. fakes.

Sotheby’s March 22-23, 2013 sale in Paris of Pre-Columbian works from the Barbier-Mueller has gotten more controversial.  Following Peru’s request for 67 items set to be sold, Guatemala, according the Agence France-Presse, has laid claim to 13 artifacts and Mexico, says el Regio, is calling for the return of 51 objects.

Lot 26. ENCENSOIR EN DEUX PARTIESCULTURE TEOTIHUACÁN VALLÉE DE MEXICO, MEXIQUE CLASSIQUE, 450-650 AP. J.-C. TWO-PART TEOTIHUACAN INCENSARIO, MEXICO h. 41 cm ; 16 in Estimate: €30,000-40,000 Provenance Galerie Pierre Robin, Paris, 1985 Collection Barbier-Mueller, Genève, Inv. n° 506-4

Lot 26. ENCENSOIR EN DEUX PARTIES, CULTURE TEOTIHUACÁN,VALLÉE DE MEXICO, MEXIQUE, CLASSIQUE, 450-650 AP. J.-C.
TWO-PART TEOTIHUACAN INCENSARIO, MEXICO, h. 41 cm ; 16 in
Estimate: €30,000-40,000. Bidding on this lot stopped at €24,000 and it failed to sell.
Provenance
Galerie Pierre Robin, Paris, 1985
Collection Barbier-Mueller, Genève, Inv. n° 506-4

This is on top of the fact that nearly half the lots in the sale do not have a dated, pre-1970 provenance, according to the Chasing Aphrodite Web site.

A dated, pre-1970 provenance is slowly becoming a collector’s benchmark and is already recommended by the American Association of Museum Directors as a cut off date  for acquisitions (though there is wiggle room).  However, there are also individual national statutes with widley varying cut-off dates that govern the legal export and/or sale of antiquities.  Nor does that pre-1970 criteria settle long term disputes about the acquisition of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes.

According to the Financial Times:

[The sale's] 313 lots, expected to realise about €20m, constitute one part of the Geneva-based Barbier-Mueller Collection, an extraordinary collection of collections begun by Josef Mueller (1887-1977) and then honed and expanded by his daughter Monique and her husband Jean Paul Barbier. It is a rare opportunity to acquire works of art that, in some cases, are the finest known – or only – examples of their type.

Here are a few more of the dozens and dozens of lots lacking a dated, pre-1970 provenance:

Lot 41. VASE À DÉCOR PEINT DE PERSONNAGESCULTURE MAYA MEXIQUE OU GUATEMALA CLASSIQUE, 600-900 AP. J.-C. MAYA VASE WITH PAINTED FIGURES, MEXICO OR GUATEMALA h. 10 cm ; 4 in Estimate: 50,000-60,000 Provenance Throckmorton Fine Art, New York, 2002 Collection Barbier-Mueller, Genève, Inv. n° 502-48

Lot 41. VASE À DÉCOR PEINT DE PERSONNAGES, CULTURE MAYA, MEXIQUE OU GUATEMALA, CLASSIQUE, 600-900 AP. J.-C.
MAYA VASE WITH PAINTED FIGURES, MEXICO OR GUATEMALA, h. 10 cm ; 4 in
Estimate: €50,000-60,000. Bidding on this lot stopped at €35,000 and it failed to sell.
Provenance
Throckmorton Fine Art, New York, 2002
Collection Barbier-Mueller, Genève, Inv. n° 502-48

Lot 117. STATUETTE ANTHROPOMORPHE.CULTURE OLMÈQUE, LAS BOCAS, MEXIQUEPRÉCLASSIQUE, 900-600 AV. J.-C. OLMEC ANTHROPOMORPHIC FIGURE, LAS BOCAS, MEXICO, h. 27,5 ; 10 3/4 in Estimate: 120,000-140,000 Provenance Galerie Merrin, New York, 1987 Collection Barbier-Mueller, Genève, Inv. n° 500-31

Lot 117. STATUETTE ANTHROPOMORPHE.CULTURE OLMÈQUE, LAS BOCAS, MEXIQUE
PRÉCLASSIQUE, 900-600 AV. J.-C.
OLMEC ANTHROPOMORPHIC FIGURE, LAS BOCAS, MEXICO, h. 27,5 ; 10 3/4 in
Estimate: €120,000-140,000. This lot sold for a hammer price of €110,000 (€133,500 with the buyer’s premium).
Provenance
Galerie Merrin, New York, 1987
Collection Barbier-Mueller, Genève, Inv. n° 500-31

Lot 131. STATUETTE ANTHROPOMORPHE, HOMME ASSIS, CULTURE OLMÈQUE, RÉGION DE LA VENTA, MEXIQUEPRÉCLASSIQUE, 900-600 AV. J.-C. OLMEC STONE FIGURE OF A SEATED MAN, MEXICO, h. 10 cm ; 4 in. Estimate: 300,000-400,000 Provenance Galerie Merrin, New York, 1976 Collection Barbier-Mueller, Genève, Inv. n° 501-4

Lot 131. STATUETTE ANTHROPOMORPHE, HOMME ASSIS, CULTURE OLMÈQUE, RÉGION DE LA VENTA, MEXIQUE
PRÉCLASSIQUE, 900-600 AV. J.-C.
OLMEC STONE FIGURE OF A SEATED MAN, MEXICO, h. 10 cm ; 4 in.
Estimate: €300,000-400,000. This lot sold for a hammer price of €400,000 (€481,500 with the buyer’s premium).
Provenance
Galerie Merrin, New York, 1976
Collection Barbier-Mueller, Genève, Inv. n° 501-4

2 Comments leave one →
  1. rene costa permalink
    March 21, 2013 9:00 AM

    Indeed, these are real museum pieces and one can understand the Mexican Government eagerness to recuperate them. Yet, are not they of the same cultural art pieces, such as paintings sculptures and others that have been exchange across the board. If each country would step up and reclaim this kind of art objects then it would be a messy situation. Imagine the obelisks in the French and British capitals being sent back to Egypt! Perhaps Mexico should make a bid to purchase those pieces that real are exceptional. But I do agree. Those pieces should be catalogued and recorded in the Mexican archives of pre-Columbian art.

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  1. Red Flags in Paris: Half of Sotheby’s Barbier-Mueller Pre-Colombian Sale Lacks Provenance | CHASING APHRODITE

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