The case of the Quiriguá vase
The case of the Quiriguá vase
On Nov. 12 of last year, Bonhams auction house in New York sold an ancient Maya vase excavated in 1912 at the ruins of Quiriguá, Guatemala, by Earl H. Morris, who was part of the Archaeological Institute of America’s and Santa Fe’s School of American Archaeology’s third field season at the site. The vase was consigned to Bonhams by the St. Louis Society of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), and it was purchased for $21,250 by the Dallas Museum of Art. The sale by the St. Louis Society led to an outcry in the archaeological community and official censure and sanctions by the society’s parent, the AIA. On Jan. 10 of this year, the Executive Council of the AIA met and voted to revoke the charter of its St. Louis Society unless all of that body’s board members were replaced by Feb. 1.
These actions were prompted not only by the sale of the Quiriguá vase, but also by the St. Louis Society’s decision earlier in the fall to auction a group of Egyptian antiquities it had received in exchange for supporting a dig. The issue with these transactions is that while they did not violate any law, they contravene generally accepted ethical standards in contemporary archaeology. Archaeologists who are associated with museums and academic institutions do not sell the objects they excavate, and they tend to abhor any dealings with the art market and its mechanisms of creating value. At the same meeting, the AIA council amended its rules on member societies to forbid them from engaging in transactions involving archaeological objects that would have the “effect of removing such archaeological objects from general availability for scholarly investigation or public display.”
The affiliated societies of the AIA have existed for more than a century. They function to raise public awareness of archaeology and of the work of the AIA and to raise funds for various sponsored projects. The Edgar Lee Hewett papers at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library at the Palace of the Governors contain much correspondence between Hewett and the officers of many AIA societies. The papers show that Hewett maintained a busy schedule of lectures at AIA affiliate societies about the activities of the School of American Archaeology. And those same papers contain the original documents in which a St. Louis businessagreed man to fund Hewett’s excavations south of the U.S. border and to be parcompensated tially in return with a portion of the finds. These kinds of arrangements were very common a century ago. The sponsoring instituwould tion often return with choice archaeological specimens and (we hope) leave a portion in the country of origin. For example, this is why the celebrated Egyptian statue of Menkaura and his wife is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and not in Cairo. The museum was one of the sponsors of the expedition that excavated the famous sculpture in 1909. Any number of similar examples can be identified at museums both in the U.S. and in Europe, not to mention the masses of objects at such museums that lack any kind of secure archaeological provenience.
The present dust-up began last fall, when Bonhams published the catalog for its auction of antiquities, planned for Oct. 2 in London. Lot 160, called the “Treasure of Harageh,” consisted of ancient Egyptian objects, dating to the 12th Dynasty, or about 1897-1878 BC. Among the 31 works were silver necklaces, travertine vessels, assorted jewelry of silver, lapis lazuli, and other semiprecious stones, and a unique silver pendant shaped like a bee. According to the catalog, archaeologists of the British School of Archaeology, led by William Matthew Flinders Petrie, excavated the objects in 1913-1914, from a tomb at Harageh, in the Fayum district of Middle Egypt. They were given to the St. Louis Society of the AIA in 1914, in exchange for its financial support of the expedition. The catalog listed the high estimate for the lot at $180,000, a figure justified not only by the rarity and quality of the hoard, but also by its provenance. Flinders Petrie is considered a foundationary figure in the development of modern archaeology.
From a legal standpoint, objects like those of the Harageh Treasure are catnip for museums in the U.S., because most major institutions follow the recommendations of the American Association of Museums (AAM), which strongly frowns upon the acquisition of archaeological and other objects of foreign cultural patrimony that lack secure archaeological provenance and/or legal export papers from their country of origin. The laws on this matter are tied to a UNESCO convention of 1970, which the U.S. ratified in 1983. The convention was enacted to combat the traffic in looted objects from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Mali. In practice, many museums today will not purchase, and prefer not to accept as gifts, objects that cannot be proven to have been in the U.S. before 1970. The Association of Art Museum Directors created a registry in which
While Sylvanus G. Morley, assistant director of the 1912 excavations at the site, never hazarded a guess as to the identity of the figure depicted on the vase (left), later writers have identified it as an image of Ek Chuah, the Maya deity of both chocolate and long-distance merchants.
AAM-accredited institutions are supposed to publish objects that do not meet its baseline criteria for the acquisition of archaeological material and ancient art. No matter what one thinks about whether museums should collect these kind of objects, the laws and the way they are interpreted have created a vast pool of orphan objects that cannot be donated to a public collection. In this context, it is no wonder the estimates for the Harageh Treasure surpassed $150,000. When an AIA member reported the auction to the institute, it immediately issued a notice expressing grave concern about the sale but noted that the St. Louis Society was a separate not-for-profit organization. At the last minute, the sale was withdrawn, and beginning on the day after the auction, news outlets reported that most, but not all, of the objects were purchased in a private pre-auction sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an undisclosed sum. The AIA then released another statement censuring the St. Louis Society for selling objects that were donated to them with the intention that they remain in a public collection for the benefit of the people of St. Louis. The statement noted further that the sale had damaged the reputation of both the St. Louis Society and the AIA as a whole and that it undermined the activities of the AIA to safeguard global archeological heritage.
The Quiriguá vase, which has been likened to an old English Toby jar because it is a head effigy, measures 18 centimeters high and depicts a grotesque face with a long nose. It was discovered shattered, in the inner room of a building, Structure 1B-2, located on the so-called acropolis of Quiriguá. Recent archaeological and art-historical research shows that the structure dates to the early years of the reign of a Quiriguá ruler named K’ak’ Tiliw, who ruled from A.D. 724 to 785, about the same time as Charlemagne’s rule of western Europe and as the middle stretch of China’s Tang Dynasty. Sylvanus G. Morley, the sometime Santa Fean and the assistant director of the 1912 excavations at the site, noted in his Guide Book to the Ruins of
Quirigua (1935) that the vase was “unquestionably one of the finest examples of the Maya ceramic art that has ever been discovered.” While Morley never hazarded a guess as to the identity of the figure depicted on the vase, later writers have identified it as an image of Ek Chuah, the Maya deity of both chocolate and long-distance merchants. Archaeologist Wendy Ashmore, who excavated at the site in the 1970s, argued that this kind of effigy vessel, which originally had a lid, was used for drinking chocolate and that it might relate to Quiriguá’s role as a significant producer in the ancient Maya cacao economy. Other writers suggest it might depict a dwarf or a foreigner, especially given Quiriguá’s location on the eastern Maya frontier.
The St. Louis Society of the AIA supported the School of American Archaeology’s excavations in Quiriguá in 1910-1912. Records in the Hewett Papers show that the original plan, developed as early as 1908, was to excavate the Maya ruins at Palenque, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and not to dig in Quiriguá. Hewett negotiated a concession from the Mexican government for the School
Quimu and Charles Lummis at Stela K in Quiriguá, Guatemala, 1910; photo Jesse Nusbaum, Negative No. 060952, courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA)