The case of the Quiriguá vase

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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)

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