A Hollow Victory for Mexico in the Barbier-Mueller Sale

Lot 137, which did sell,
for 2,001,500 Euro

On Friday and Saturday in Paris Sotheby’s auctioned a number of allegedly Pre-Columbian objects from the Barbier-Mueller collection.

Nord Wennerstrom reports that many of the lots sold for less than the low estimate, and 79 of 151 lots failed to sell. His take: the auction ended as “inauspiciously as it began”. Sotheby’s lists its sale results here.

The auction generated considerable interest last week. In anticipation of the sale Mexican officials protested and noted: “Of the 130 objects advertised as being from Mexico, 51 are archaeological artifacts that are (Mexican) national property, and the rest are handicrafts”. In this case “handicrafts” is a very polite way of pointing out that some of the objects are fakes or forgeries. In this case the sale continued, but the considerable notoriety surrounding the sale certainly diminished the market value of these objects, and in many cases made these objects too toxic perhaps for some buyers.

French diplomats last week did not intervene in the sale noting that none of the objects had appeared on the Interpol database, or the “red list” published by the International Council of Museums.

Sotheby’s Paris on its website stated the collect was started in 1920 by Jose Mueller. His son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller broadened the collection. Sotheby’s described Barbier-Mueller as “a great aesthete and man of culture”.

Here’s an extended quote from the overview given by Sotheby’s:

In 1908 and 1909 Josef Mueller acquired major works by Hodler and Cézanne in Paris. While initially focusing on Western masterpieces of universal appeal, he soon became attracted by important works of Pre-Columbian art, his first purchase being an Aztec ‘water goddess’ in Paris in 1920. His son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, a great aesthete and man of culture, brought this high standard of collecting to other fields, such as African Art, Oceanic Art and Cycladic Art. His dedicated focus has resulted in the well-deserved reputation for excellence that the collections have today. Mr. Barbier-Mueller and his wife Monique Barbier-Mueller (Josef Mueller’s daughter), who has pursued modern and contemporary art, have achieved one of the foremost collections of art in private hands, one defined by their sophisticated knowledge and refined eye.

Some of this collection had been in existence since the early part of the 20th century. But not all of it. In a case like this, Mexico and other nations of origin have a limited range of options here. Their best way to attack the sale of these objects is exactly what it did. Make a public protest over the sale, and enlist the power of the press to reduce the market value of these under-provenanced objects. We are unsure now what will happen to the objects which did not sell. Contrast this situation with what might have happened had this auction occurred in the United States.

Increasingly unprovenanced objects are being regulated by Federal prosecutors, at least in New York and St. Louis. We certainly don’t know if a forfeiture would have happened in this case, or indeed if that was even a consideration in the decision to sell these objects in Paris rather than New York. But it is yet another example of the complex web of legal rules and norms which apply to the antiquities trade.

  1. Mark Stevenson, Mexico demands Sotheby’s halt auction of artifacts, The Washington Post, March 23, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/mexico-demands-sothebys-halt-auction-of-artifacts/2013/03/21/e5d18316-9274-11e2-bdea-e32ad90da239_story.html (last visited Mar 25, 2013).
  2. Mike Boehm, Mexico trying to stop antiquities sale at Sotheby’s in Paris, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-mexico-wants-to-stop-sothebys-precolumbian-art-auction-20130321,0,5085665.story?track=rss (last visited Mar 25, 2013).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *