The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has identified three fake pieces of the thirty Mexican pre-Hispanic objects that Christie’s auction house plans to auction on February 9 in Paris. But false or not, there is little chance that the Mexican government will succeed in its intention to stop the auction and recover those pieces, a new claim in which the Attorney General’s Office and the Foreign Ministry have taken part. French law understands these transactions as a private commercial exchange in which you do not get involved. “This is an inadmissible act for Mexicans, it is about the nation’s goods and it cannot be marketed with them,” the INAH director general, Diego Prieto Hernández, said at a press conference this Tuesday.
Mexican law is perfect in this regard: patrimonial assets are inalienable, imprescriptible and unattachable and it is a crime to export archaeological pieces or pieces of particular relevance. The problem is that Mexico cannot always prove how, who or when these treasures were taken out of the country, some of them probably even before the 1972 law, in whose preparation the now prosecutor Alejandro Gertz Manero participated. In the INAH they insist that there is no doubt that they belong to the Mexican people and that they must have been plundered. The auction is titled Quetzalcóatl, feathered serpent and offers the pieces in values between 4,000 and 900,000 euros (100,000 pesos to 22.3 million pesos).
One of the ways for these objects of opaque origin to acquire legal ownership is, precisely, their passage through an auction. “That is why commercial houses celebrate them in countries like France, with which we do not have bilateral agreements, such as with the United States, which requires certifying the provenance, and where it is the plaintiff who must prove that the pieces belong to him”, Prieto Hernández explained. “Auctions are the laundering mechanism for these assets.” France also does not comply with the Unidroit agreement, the institute for the harmonization of international law. Finally, only Interpol is a way to achieve some result. But many of these works of art are not reported in the police organization.
Thus, Mexico’s doors are closed. “We do not stop seeking collaboration with France, a friend of Mexico, but another thing is the right to protest and claim,” added Prieto Hernández. Many of these looting of heritage occurred even before 1972, we will continue to fight it, but that can no longer be avoided ”, acknowledged the anthropologist responsible for the INAH.
Mexico has been resorting to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for decades without much success in these matters. At least with some countries. “With auctions we are not normally successful,” acknowledged Prieto Hernández, but has mentioned some other cases in which the pieces were returned, for example one in Germany, where the provenance and crime could be proven and the person responsible went through the jail. Or that of a coin collector in Miami. For the rest, you have to settle for “advance in diplomatic and political relations.” And demand that countries enter into international conventions so that they can intervene in the restitution of looted works.
In Mexico there are “tens of thousands” of archaeological sites, so an intervention to prevent this looting from ending up again in auctions abroad in the future would be effective surveillance. “We are trying to establish a new police force dependent on the National Guard that is dedicated to protecting the heritage, for which we are collaborating with the Carabinieri in Italy, who have 50 years of experience in the matter,” said the person in charge of the INAH.
Once the pieces that are going to be auctioned are known, it is not easy to determine whether they are false or truly correspond to the “sacred” past of Mexico, due to the impossibility of accessing them. It is the specialists who at a glance manage to certify, in some cases, that they are recent works by artists or artisans. When these cases occur there is not much to say. Neither reproductions nor handicrafts are prohibited. “With their bread they eat it,” Prieto Hernández has colloquially expressed in this regard. “The crime is when they pass off those works as old pieces,” he added. One of the pieces that the INAH has branded as false is a mask from lot 23 that comes with a very high price and that “is of contemporary invoice, possibly from a few decades ago. Nor would we claim it, it is not old, ”said the INAH director.
Those responsible for the archaeological heritage of Mexico do not give up. “It is a long struggle, but not a sterile one.” “This illegitimate transfer is prohibited by law since the eighteenth century and although we cannot prove the way in which they left the territory, it is obvious that it is about Mexican heritage,” the general director has settled. But the auctions represent an insurmountable wall in Mexico.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.