A sale of Pre-Columbian art and Taíno artifacts at Christie’s set to take place in Paris tomorrow has become the subject of protests by Taíno activists and allies.
The sale, titled “Pre-Columbian Art & Taino Masterworks,” includes 38 works from the Fiore Arts Collection of Taíno art. Many of the works in the sale are priced between $5,000 and $200,000. Among them are ritual spatulas carved from manatee bones, as well as shell, wood, and terra cotta ornaments. According to the sale catalogue, several of the objects have been on long-term loan at institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“We hope that people can realize they can make a stance against these auctions,” said Stephanie Sherman, a member of Arayeke Yukayek, a Taíno tribe with members based across the U.S., and the person behind an online petition targeting the sale that has accrued more than 32,000 signatures. “We hope places that sell such artifacts like Christie’s feel the pressure.”
Sherman went on: “These aren’t just cultural heritage. In the auction are cemi [idols], which we believe are spiritual beings that need to be fed, honored, and housed. We believe some of our powers are with them—we bury our dead with them. They all have immense cultural and sacred powers to us. They’re not just inanimate objects.”
Sherman is not the only one who has raised concerns about the auction. Mexican officials have also demanded that the sale be called off, claiming that the pre-Columbian objects that are also being offered are part of the country’s “national heritage.”
A Christie’s representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an email statement provided to the activists, a spokesperson wrote that Christie’s is “devoting considerable resources to investigating the provenance of works we offer for sale.” It continued: “While we are respectful of different points of view and experiences, we feel it is important that the legitimate and legal market is upheld.”
Stephanie Bailey, a cacike, or a chief, of the Arayeke Yukayek, said that the protests were part of an effort to show that the Taíno had hardly been killed off during European colonization of the Caribbean. Warfare and sickness brought by Europeans are known to have lead to deaths of millions, and thousands of Taínos were sold into slavery. For centuries, Western histories of the Caribbean claimed that the Taíno were extinct but more recently, historical records and DNA testing have confirmed that many modern self-identifying Taíno are the genetic descendants of the original Caribbeans.
“Using terms like ‘artifacts’ and ‘extinct’ increases an object’s value, but we’re out here, I’m here. We’re not extinct,” Bailey said.
Yesterday, Taíno activists gathered outside Christie’s New York ahead of the sale. Sanakori Luis Ramos, a Behike—a Taíno medicine man—performed a ceremony. Its intention, Bailey explained, was to ask their ancestors for strength, understanding, and assurance amid, what she considers, a struggle for recognition. Plans are in place for other activists in France to launch a protest in Paris during the auction.
“Those people will have to walk through us to get to the auction—they’ll see that Taíno are not an artifact,” Bailey said. “We need to show them that our culture is not just a conversation piece to place on their mantle.”