Mexico asks Christie's to call off auction of pre-Hispanic artifacts

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico on Tuesday urged auction house Christie’s to cancel a planned sale in Paris of more than 30 artifacts dating back to the country’s pre-Hispanic era, saying the items are part of the national heritage and should be returned.

FILE PHOTO: People are seen in front of the Pyramid of the Sun as they welcome the spring equinox, in the pre-hispanic city of Teotihuacan, dampened by coronavirus threat, in this picture taken from top of the pyramid of the sun, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Mexico, March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Romero/File Photo

Christie’s plans to auction masks, carved stones and other figures by Aztec, Mayan, Toltec and Mixtec cultures on Feb. 9, with some of the items expected to fetch as much as 900,000 euros ($1.1 million).

Mexico’s government-run National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) reviewed the items on sale and identified 32 as part of the country’s “cultural heritage.”

Diego Prieto, INAH’s director general, said the institute had filed a complaint about the auction with the Mexican attorney general’s office, and that the country’s foreign ministry is trying to retrieve the items through diplomatic channels.

Speaking in a virtual news conference, Prieto said “sacred” objects should not be for sale.

“There shouldn’t be trade in national treasures,” he said.

Christie’s said it only puts up items for sale if they have “verifiable documented provenance” and the company is satisfied with their authenticity and ownership.

“Under no circumstance would Christie’s knowingly offer a work of art where we know the property to have been looted or illicitly obtained,” the company said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

Among stand-out items in the sale are a greenstone Teotihuacan Serpentine mask, dating from circa 450-650 AD, which Christie’s said “was part of the collection” of Pierre Matisse, the youngest son of the famous French painter Henri Matisse.

Another highlight is a sculpture of Cihuateotl, a goddess of fertility in Aztec culture.

($1 = 0.8304 euros)

Reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Raul Cortes Fernandez; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Paul Simao