NEW YORK (AP) — The London-based Bonhams auction house sold off a collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts Wednesday over the objections of the Mexican government, which says at least half the pieces are fake and the rest rightly belong to it as national heritage.
Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History said it "had offered the auction house specialized assistance in determining the authenticity of the artifacts, but the auctioneers ignored this proposal."
A total of 314 pieces were auctioned Wednesday, including African and Oceanic art. The Mexican pieces included sculptures, ceramic vessels and other artifacts from the Aztec, Mayan and other cultures, many from the private Scott & Stuart Gentling Collection.
Bonhams said in a statement that "there was heavy interest in the section featuring works of art from the Scott & Stuart Gentling Collection, with many of the lots having sold above their high estimates."
One of the pieces the Mexican institute identified as a forgery, an earthenware sculpture of a "large Maya Female Dignitary, Jaina," sold for $25,000 to a private California collector.
"The INAH condemns the fact that Bonhams ... has put up for sale fake pieces," the institute said in a statement. "With this action, Bonhams has contributed to the commission of a fraud."
The institute said Bonhams violated a 1970 U.S.-Mexico treaty for the recovery and return of stolen cultural artifacts and a 1972 Mexican law that prohibits the purchase and sale of archaeological pieces. That law allowed some previously existing collections to remain in private hands if they were registered with the government.
Bonhams spokeswoman Lucinda Bredin said the British auction house takes such claims seriously and is evaluating the "new information" about the collection. She said Bonhams thoroughly investigates the provenance of all items it auctions to ensure it meets legal requirements.
"We work closely with Interpol, government authorities, the Art Loss Register as well as institutions and academics with expertise in this area to ensure that provenance is correct and that we have complied with applicable legal requirements, which is exceptionally important to our business," Bredin wrote in a statement.
The auction opened Wednesday morning in New York with about 15 people present. Bids were also taken by phone and Internet. No Mexican government representatives were at Bonhams' New York branch for the auction, but institute experts had visited the gallery to look at some of the displayed pieces.