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The god that failed

4 April 2011

Of all the news reports (most quoting the same people) written about the authenticity of a polychrome stucco figure said to date from the Mayan Classical Period (550-950 AD) by the Paris auction house Bincohe et Giquello, focus on figure paid for the item (2.9 million Euros) and much less has been said about the politics behind the controversy.

The French auctioneers are sniffing that the Mexican anthropologists at INAH are incapable of dis-authenticating (if that’s the right word) the piece from just a catalog photo, but as Berkeley anthropologist Rosemay Joyce writes in Berkeley Blog, just about every Mayan expert who has seen the photo has the same question:  why is a Mayan wearing Roman sandals?

Joyce is primarily concerned with explaining the difference between the standards scientists use for authenticating a work (and the scientists, not just those at INAH, are pretty much in agreement that whatever the piece is, it’s not Mayan, or even pre-Colombian), and those used by collectors.

The argument used by the art dealer to support the authenticity of the piece uses a completely different logic: it comes from the collection of a well-known art collector; it was exhibited and published in catalogues, and never has been questioned before. It’s authenticity is thus “indisputable”.

Exhibited by a reputable museum… not quite with the reputation of the British Museum perhaps, but reputable.  The British Museum up until 2005 exhibited an “Aztec” crystal skull, acquired from a highly reputable source at the time:  Eugene Boban, a French collector of pre-Columbian artifacts, and formerly archaeologist to the court of Maximilian.

Experts widely believe that Boban may well have had a part in the forgery itself, let alone the deception of the British Museum in relation to their ‘Aztec’ rock crystal skull which was proven to be a fake after it was sold to them by Tiffany’s in 1897 and another at Paris’ Musée de l’Homme also suspect.

An investigation carried out by archivist, Jane Walsh at the Smithsonian in 1992, alleged that documents she unearthed reveal that it was Boban who had acquired the skull that were eventually sold to Tiffany’s in 1897. She also uncovered evidence that it was Boban who some years earlier tried to sell the same skull to the Smithsonian themselves and that it was Boban himself  who sold a similar crystal skull to a collector who later donated it to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

It is believed that Boban likely acquired the skulls from sources in Germany where large quantities of Brazilian quartz crystal were shipped in the early nineteenth century.

As it is, according to Caslon Analytics (an Australian legal research site), forged antiquities are more the rule than the exception:

In 2005 an art fraud conference organised by the UK Fraud Advisory Panel was told by Paul Craddock of the British Museum that most antiquities on sale in Britain are either stolen or fake.

The amount of legitimate material on the market is very, very small. Most antiquities on the market nowadays are either stolen or forgeries.

In 2000 the London Metropolitan Police alone seized £22m of stolen or faked antiquities. It is claimed that half the antiquities brought for sale at Sotheby’s in a year are fake and that around 25,000 forged antiquities enter the market each year. In 2006 the Met claimed that forged antiquities from Iraq and Afghanistan were being sold on internet auction sites and UK market stalls for up to £3,000 each UK to fund terrorism.

Binoche et Giquello suggests a sort of “terrorism” is behind the Mexican claims that the work is a fake.  The French, doing what they do best, are in a national snit over what the Mexicans do best… screwing up a simple criminal investigation.  Florence Cassez, a French national, was arrested the night of 8 December 2005 as a member of a notorious kidnapping gang led by her boy-friend.  Wanting to shore up public support for the police, Cassez was moved the next morning to the boy-friend’s house for a re-arrest in front of TV cameras.

While the “made for TV” arrest was certainly questionable police work (there’s a lot of that here), the French seem to be under the impression that the Emperor Maximilian is still on the throne and that they deserve “special rights” in Mexican courts.  Nope.  And, while they have every right to treat lady kidnappers any way they want in France, Mexicans are not fond of kidnappers, regardless of race, nationality or gender.   Here, they are basically considered… terrorists.

The French think it’s just terrible that we think a French woman is a terrorist and, rather than sending her back to France to serve twenty years in France[1]rather than her (well deserved) sixty year sentence, packed her off to Santa Marta women’s prison.   Which the Sakorzy administration, trying to distract the French populace from the country’s financial and social problems, has taken up as a cause celebre.

Coupled with the French government’s decision to cancel the scheduled “Year of Mexico” and the major Mexican cultural exhibits (including, one might add, authenticated Mayan art),  and more than a hint of elitism (a spokesman for  Bincohe et Giquello sniffed that the Mexican archeologists are trying to limit the market for irregularly acquired… i.e. stolen … Mexican antiquities!), there’s a certain Cartesian logic to the whole thing — though personally, given the “mayan” footware, I’d go with Roman folk wisdom:  caveat emptor.


[1] Thanks, Rafael (see comments) for pointing out the sentencing disparity between France and Mexico.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rafael permalink
    5 April 2011 6:15 am

    “The French think it’s just terrible that we think a French woman is a terrorist and, rather than sending her back to France to serve her (well deserved) sixty year sentence”

    A correction: in France the maximum amount of time a person can spend in jail is 20 years. That is one of the reasons the Mexican government opposed French plans to allow the woman to serve her jail time in France. And I agree with you regarding the French mentality. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the French to be waging such a battle – no reason other than nationalism. That a French person can do wrong in a Latin American country is something that apparently hurts the French, who are accustomed to demonizing Third World immigrants to their country as being responsible for all of France’s social ills.

  2. kwallek permalink
    5 April 2011 9:07 am

    The Roman sandals: I would not be too hasty on using the ties on the sandals to claim fraud. I’ve seen other clay figures with ties in my travels in Mayaland. Were they also frauds? Could be. My policy is to only buy reproductions, at 2.9 euros, the above figure is dirt cheap as a reproduction, as an artifact, it is a silly price.

  3. Bear permalink
    6 April 2011 9:26 am

    Mayans and other Mexicans as well have been selling excellent reproductions to the French for a long time with a wink and a
    pat to the elbow.

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