False God?: Mexico Says That A French Auction House's Record-Setting Mayan Statue Is A Fake

When a statue of a Mayan goddess obtained €2.9 million ($4.1 million) in Paris on Monday, it set a world record for a pre-Columbian artifact sold at auction. Made of colorful stucco, the goddess stands over five feet tall and has been dated to the classical period (550-950 A.D.). But now, Mexico has charged that the object is not a Mayan artifact at all but a clever fake.

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This Mayan goddess, which sold for €2.9 million ($4.1 million), may be a fake. / Courtesy Druout

The statue formerly belonged to Swiss collector Henri Law, whose entire pre-Columbian collection was on the auction block on Monday, due to his burgeoning interest in contemporary art. Law purchased the goddess at Paris's Biennale des Antiquaires in 1986 and it was featured in a show of Mexican artifacts at Geneva's Rath Museum in 1998.

In a statement also signed by Mexico's foreign ministry, the National Institute of Mexican Anthropology and History charges that no less than 67 of the 207 lots from Monday's sale are "recently produced," including the Mayan goddess. The organization claims that the statue shows a "free style that does not recreate any of the formal or stylistic characteristics of Mexico's meso-American cultures." The statue's height, its bent legs, even the straps on its shoes are all said to be signs of its inauthenticity. The Mexican experts also claim that the sculpture's surface was artificially worn away to create the impression of age.

French auction house Binoche and Giquello and the expert who authenticated the piece, Jacques Blazy, stand by their assessment. The auction house's Alexandre Giquello told ARTINFO France that the research committee for the 1998 exhibition in which the statue appeared "was made up of the most prominent specialists and the piece was never challenged." He also said that while the statue was on view in the lead-up to the auction "all the prominent dealers and collectors came, and none of them had any doubts about the piece." The Mexican experts, he added, did not see the statue in person but judged it on the basis of high-resolution images. The buyer of the statue, a European company, is unconcerned about the hubbub, according to Giquello.

The Mexican government has said that it alerted the French embassy before Monday's sale, as well as informing the French attorney general and France's agency dealing with crimes against the environment, including those related to historical monuments and heritage. Giquello stated that he had no knowledge of those steps.

This is not the first time that the Mexican government has raised concerns about sales of pre-Columbian art in Europe. In 2008, Mexican authorities accused Binoche and Giquello of holding stolen property, blocking the sale of the Jacques Kerchache collection. French police seized the works but a judge later ruled in favor of the auction house and the sale took place in 2010. Giquello told ARTINFO France that at the time the Mexican ambassador told him that his goal was to "eradicate the pre-Columbian market in Europe."

The current dispute also arrives in the midst of a diplomatic feud over the fate of a French citizen who is jailed in Mexico, which led to the cancellation of France's "Year of Mexico" art exhibitions, including a show of Mayan masks that would have been the first of its kind in France.

Nicolai Hartvig, ARTINFO France

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