Snubbing its nose at long-held ethical standards established by the U.S. archaeological community, the St Louis Chapter of the Archaeological Society of America has placed entrusted Mesoamerican and Egyptian artifacts for sale on the antiquities market.
Recently consigned for sale at the Bonhams Auction House in London, the artifacts included the “Treasure of Harageh”( a tomb group from the ancient site of Harageh), an Egyptian alabaster-travertine headrest, a limestone double-sided relief fragment for Nefertiti (the ca. 1370 BC – ca. 1330 BC Royal Wife (chief consort) of Akhenaten, an Egyptian Pharaoh), a Maya effigy vase from the ancient site of Quirigua, Guatemala, and a Zapotec seated figural urn from the ancient site of Monte Albán, Mexico.
While the Treasure of Harageh has already been purchased ‘under the table’ by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, essentially ‘coming to the rescue’ within the rules of archaeological ethics and resulting in the items being withdrawn from sale, all other items remain on the auction block.
It is reported that the Governing Board of the St. Louis Chapter, a chartered society of the AIA but independently operated as a separately incorporated non-profit organization, made the decision to place the artifacts up for sale without the support or consent of the membership. “The Governing Board of the AIA [Archaeological Institute of America] at its meeting on October 25, 2014, in Providence, R.I., unanimously expressed its dismay at the recent sale of Egyptian artifacts by the AIA St. Louis Society in contravention of the ethical standards current in archaeology,” announced the AIA. “The decision of its Board of Directors to sell the objects was taken without consulting the AIA or the Society’s members, many of whom have expressed consternation at what has happened……..The AIA made every effort to determine a solution that would enable the objects to remain in St. Louis. Unfortunately, the St Louis Society rejected such an outcome. The AIA reserves all rights to take any action or actions available to it to address this situation.”
The local St. Louis Board has made no public comments on the issue as of this writing.
The sale of artifacts on the antiquities market, especially those with provenance (a record relating to their recovery in archaeological excavations or other contexts) has long been considered a crime from the perspective of the international archaeological community, and in many countries legislation and measures have been put in place to address antiquities trafficking. In a reinforcement of this, The Egypt Exploration Society, which has publicly condemned the sale action by the St. Louis Society, announced that “public museums offer the best hope that ancient objects are safeguarded against loss or deterioration to their condition, and that they will remain accessible to scholars and the wider public for study and enjoyment. Objects which are sold on the open market may be transferred to collections which are not required to provide such safeguards, and which have no obligations to make the material they contain accessible.”
“These Mesoamerican items are on the market, with their sterling provenance,” says Donna Yates, speaking specifically of the Pre-columbian artifacts. She is an archaeologist who specializes in antiquities trafficking at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research in Glasgow, Scotland. “They will likely go into a private collection and they will inspire future sales of dirty [illicitly acquired and/or sold] Mesoamerican antiquities. And, let me repeat, almost all of the Mesoamerican antiquities on the market are dirty in some way.”
Donna speaks of a serious problem when it comes to the trade and sale of pre-Columbian objects. But the problem also applies to the care and management of all objects representing a collective world heritage, be it Egyptian, Mesoamerican, Mesopotamian, Chinese, or any other region in the world with an ancient pedigree.
“The AIA believes that it is the responsibility of all to protect and preserve the record of the past for the benefit of people today and in the future,” announced the AIA in an affirmation of its principles. “Disposing of artifacts through a public sale puts those artifacts at risk of being removed from public access.”
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