Do not buy pre-Hispanic antiquities (arbitrage)

Almost all of the artifacts described as the oldest in the permanent collection of the Mexican Museum are either forgeries or cannot be authenticated to display in a national museum.

That’s the finding of a report commissioned by the museum board and submitted in late June by Eduardo Pérez de Heredia Puente, an associate of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City.

According to the report, only 83 of 2,000 artifacts from the pre-Hispanic, or pre-Columbian, era could be certified as museum-quality by an independent team of museum curators who came from Mexico City to conduct the test. The other 1,917 are considered “decorative,” and will probably be given to schools or smaller museums before the museum moves from its temporary Fort Mason site to a permanent home in a luxury condo tower being constructed near SFMOMA.

Here is the full story.  Or should I just say “do not buy antiquities?”

Hat tip goes to Ted Gioia.


It may have worked once. In the late 1800s an American diplomat bought Chichen Itza then excavated and pumped sinkholes to retrieve artifacts. After the Mexican revolution, the new regime proposed a national foundational myth where pre-Spanish conquest cultures were important. The American consul in Yucatan was indicted with theft and the idea of "buy legit objects from Mexicans" may have started since it was not possible to explore independently anymore.

Incentives work. Forging is much easier than exploration under hostile circumstances. The lie was good for the forging business and for populists railing against the US in the 1960s, so.......everyone was earnest to say Americans were buying legit objects.

Do the pre-Columbian Americas have any culture worth consuming?

Hint: No.

In case of doubt, think about what would Andrew Carnegie do.

Tortillas. I consume them regularly.

Tortillas are evidence I'm right.

Chili peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and corn (maize), surely.

They are no more counterfeit than the Nobel Prize in Economics, so often referred to on this blog.

The non-counterfeit prizes include the Peace Prize and the Literature Prize.

Indeed, but there's a clear difference between a counterfeit prize and a trivial or preposterous real one.

Gerard Debreu was a man of some scholarly accomplishment. Bernard Lown and Company were satisfactory working professionals who made jack-wagons out of themselves in the realm of political advocacy.

Doesn't beating this dead horse get tiresome?

She's British university educated bourgeois. Being a snot is no more likely to get tiresome than would breathing in and out.

Around 40 years ago I designed a home for an American who had a large collection of pre-Columbian antiquities from Mexico. These seemed to me at the time what any Kindergarden could produce. The story was my client was approached by a guy whose brother was a farmer who had “discovered” these “relics”. He was told they would be seized by the government, so they chose to sell them secretly. He was cautioned not to have them appraised when he returned to the States, since then they might be confiscated. The question I never asked my client was how did they decide what to charge; $5,000, $50,000, or $500,000

Unless your designs are retro, he got taken twice.

According to the report, only 83 of 2,000 artifacts from the pre-Hispanic, or pre-Columbian, era could be certified as museum-quality by an independent team of museum curators who came from Mexico City to conduct the test.

You mean the judgment of the curators who acquired the artifacts was defective 96% of the time but the judgment of the curators assessing the argument is totes OK?

"certified as museum-quality"

What level of certainty is required to certify as "museum-quality"? >.95?
Will certifying only 83 of 2,000 increase or preserve the value of the collections at the Mexican curators own museums? Incentives matter.

I would have thought the moral was that the supply of previously-museum pieces for sale was about to increase and it's a good time to buy decorative pieces

That's the advantage of modern art. We know that a Basquiat was painted by the artist himself and is obviously worth the $35 million paid for it.

Probably don't buy them - if they are real then the country will simply report them to the USA government and demand they be returned as national treasure and it doesn't matter if you bought them legitimately or not as I understand the currrent law. The foreign claim trumps you bill of sale.

Of the 2,000 donated artifacts, how many tax deductions were taken by donors? My over/under is 1,995.

My most unpopular and unproven belief is that even in official Mexican museums most supposedly pre-Hispanic pieces are either forgeries or cannot be authenticated.

Comments for this post are closed