Mexican authorities condemn French auction of pre-Columbian artefacts

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Mexican authorities have called on a Paris auction house to halt its planned sale of ancient artefacts they say are protected under the country’s cultural heritage laws.

Millon, a Parisian auction house, is selling what it describes as items from a private collection of pre-Columbian art on 3 April. The lots are estimated to fetch up to €70,000 each.

However, of the 148 lots up for sale, 83 are archaeological objects that are protected under Mexican law, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and the Ministry of Culture. The organisations said in a statement last week that INAH specialists surveyed the objects in the auction.

Items the Mexican government has claimed are protected under law include anthropomorphic figurines, ceramics and a sacred axe—the most valuable item in the auction—that date back as far as the Middle Preclassic Period (1200BCE-400BCE).

Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, Mexico’s secretary of culture, urged the auction house to stop the sale and take into consideration that the objects’ historical, symbolic and cultural value is “superior to any commercial interest”, according to the INAH statement.

The Ministry of Culture and INAH have filed a complaint with Mexico’s attorney general and notified the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ legal department and Interpol. A spokesperson for Millon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mexico has stepped up efforts to repatriate art and artefacts back to the country over the past few years, with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador being a vocal proponent of repatriation as a foreign policy priority since he was elected in 2018. His administration has launched a social media campaign calling for Mexico’s cultural heritage to be returned under the hashtag #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (“My heritage is not for sale”).

Since he took office, thousands of objects have been returned to Mexico from across the world, most recently when Italy returned 43 artefacts that were recovered by the Carabinieri Art Squad, the branch of the Italian police that investigates art and antiquities crimes. The artefacts date from roughly 200CE to 600CE, the INAH said. In December, the Netherlands repatriated 223 pre-Hispanic artefacts back to Mexico. In September 2019, pre-Columbian artefacts were auctioned off in Paris despite both Mexico and Guatemala calling on Millon to cancel the sale.

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