Sotheby’s Sells Disputed Precolombian Artifacts, With Only Moderate Success

Sotheby’s Paris has been under fire for the past few weeks from four Latin American countries, which have accused the auction house of putting illegally exported artworks on the block. Despite protests from Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica, Sotheby’s went ahead with the sale over the weekend. However, fewer half of the 313 lots offered from the collection of Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller found buyers, and the sale total was a mere €10,296,300 ($13,375,000) — far below the $19-24 million estimate.

The New York Times posted about the various nations’ objections earlier in the week:

Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica have all objected to the auction, which features items from the private Barbier-Mueller collection. Peru has asked for the return of 67 objects, according to antiquities experts, while Mexico says 51 have suspect provenance and Guatemala has put claims on 13 items. It is not clear how many items Costa Rica has disputed. All four nations have cited cultural property laws in making their claims.

Although both Sotheby’s and Barbier-Mueller insist that the objects were obtained legally, the Wall Street Journal reported on Peru’s specific objections back in February:

“It is possible to deduce that their exportation must have been clandestine, given that from April 2, 1822 Peruvian regulations prohibit the removing of archaeological goods without government authorization,” the Ministry of Culture said.

It’s not yet clear whether the unsold lots line up with the disputed works, but it wouldn’t be surprising considering the headaches that can come from fighting a custody battle over ancient artifacts with a sovereign state.

— Shane Ferro

(This post originally appeared on Above The Estimate, ARTINFO’s art market blog.)