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Peru and Guatemala Ramp Up Demands to Halt Auctions

The Government of Peru has made a practice of enlisting the help of U.S authorities to halt U.S. auction sales with last minute claims that ancient artifacts were “stolen.” U.S. auction houses Bonhams, Skinners and others who see pre-Columbian artifacts and textiles frequently receive letters from the FBI or ICE seeking information on the consignors and ownership history of very minor, common types of Peruvian material at auction. The letters typically arrive just a few days prior to the scheduled auctions, forcing the houses to withdraw materials pending making enquiries to consignors. If the auction house refuses to voluntarily divulge information, a search warrant or court order may be threatened, according to auction sources.

Peru has expanded its demands to British and European venues involving extremely minor objects as well as collections of international renown. On January 12, 2013, the Peruvian press reported that Peruvian and British authorities successfully sought removal from auction of three “treasures” from TimeLine online auctions. The items were actually common artifacts ordinarily valued at less than $100 and found at venues like flea markets and antique shops: two cotton and camelid wool tassels from 15th century Inca bags and the tiny head of an anthropomorphic figurine from the Chancay culture (1100-1450 A.D.). According to the online auctioneers, the pieces were acquired by a private collector in London in the 1950s and had previously belonged to a late 19th C private collection.

Now Peru seeks to halt the sale of important pre-Columbian artifacts from the Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller private collection at Sotheby’s Paris on March 22-23. Sotheby’s will auction about 300 outstanding works from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Costa Rica and other source countries from the Barbier-Mueller collection.

The Barbier-Mueller family collection was begun by Josef Mueller nearly one hundred years ago but the bulk of the pre-Columbian collection was acquired during the second half of the 20th century. The pieces are well-known through exhibitions and publications. Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller has made many donations to French museums, especially the Musée du Quai Branly and the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre. The Barbier-Mueller pre-Columbian collection was expanded significantly prior to 1992 in order to enrich exhibitions surrounding the Columbus quincentenary. Among these were numerous objects acquired by Barbier-Mueller that had belonged to the Guy Joussemet Collection in the 1960s.
The Peruvian government said it plans to “act rapidly to place charges that these goods were presumably obtained in an illicit manner,” citing to previously unpublished Peruvian regulations prohibiting the removal of archaeological goods allegedly dating to April 2, 1822. (A cite to them was tracked down by blogger Donna Yates; see The earliest published law we have located dates to 1929, the Law No. 6634 Creando el Patronato Nacional de Archeologia (“Creating the National Patronate of Archeology”).)
The Guatemalan Culture Ministry also issued a statement on March 13, 2013 asking the government of France to intervene in the sale, because the auction included items that are “the unique, exclusive and legitimate property of the state of Guatemala.” This claim is presumably based upon the Decree No. 425 of March 19, 1947 as amended by Law Decree No. 437 of March 24, 1966. IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research, has posted an unofficial translation on its website in which Article 1 states that all archaeological objects are “considered part of the cultural treasure of the nation and under the safeguard and protection of the State,” and Article 4 prohibits export. While “protection” is not “ownership” and a Guatemalan export law is not enforceable in the U.S., these laws could conceivably provide cover for seeking a civil seizure if items from the sale are imported by buyers into the U.S.

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