Update, September 22, 2021: The auction proceeded on Tuesday September 21. The Mexican newspaper, El Universal, reported that of the 67 pieces in the auction listed in the sales catalogue as Mexican, only 36, including an Olmec mask and figurine, had been sold as of Wednesday morning. Meanwhile diplomats from seven Latin American countries held a joint press conference calling for the auction to be cancelled.
The Mexican government is making efforts to halt an auction of pre-Columbian artifacts in Germany this week. In a letter sent to the Munich-based dealer Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger, the Mexican Secretary of Culture Alejandra Fraustro said the archaeological objects had been deemed “national patrimony” belonging to the Mexican people by the Instituto Nacional de Arqueologia e Historia.
In the letter, first reported by Mexico Daily News, Fraustro cited a 1934 Mexican law which prohibits the export of Mexican objects of archeological importance, and reiterated the government’s dedication to recovering Mexican heritage items from auctions worldwide.
More than 70 artifacts are set to appear at the Munich auction on September 21. Among them is a group of figures from the states of Michoacán and Veracruz that date to between 300 C.E. and 900 C.E. A mask from the Olmec people, the earliest known inhabitants of Mesoamerica, carries an estimate of €100,000 ($117,000), while a small sculpture of Cihuateotl, the name given to the souls of women who died in childbirth, is priced at €5,000 ($5,800).
On September 13, the Mexican government said that its federal Culture Ministry and the INAH had filed a complaint with Mexico’s Attorney General’s office. The agencies requested that the legal division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lend its diplomatic influence in the fight to recover the artifacts from the Munich auction house. Meanwhile, Francisco Quiroga, Mexico’s ambassador in Germany, visited the auction house to meet with Francisca Bernheimer, the head of Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger, in an attempt to block the sale, according to the Art Newspaper. He later posted on social media that INAH had identified one of the items listed in the catalogue as a fake.
In a statement to ARTnews, a representative for Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger said that all objects listed in the upcoming auction “have proof of provenance” and were legally obtained in Germany. The auction house added that documentation of provenance was available from “reputable” institutions.
The efforts in Munich follow a reaffirmed determination by the Mexican government to fight the international trafficking of heritage items. Earlier this month, Mexican authorities succeeded in canceling an auction of 17 Mexican artifacts that appeared at the Rome-based Casa Bertolami Fine Arts on September 16. The Mexican ambassador to Italy, Carlos García de Alba, working with local police, secured every piece that had yet to be sold and blocked the delivery of the artifacts that had already been purchased.
“It is the result of cultural diplomacy; of dialogue and the permanent work of two nations that recognize in their heritage one of their greatest treasures, symbols of their history, their identity and the most sacred thing that their peoples have,” Frausto said in a statement at the time.