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Mexico Claims U.S. Auction House Sold Stolen, Fake Artifacts

Pedestrians pass the display windows at Bonhams New York auction house. The Mexican government accuses Bonhams of auctioning off artifacts that were stolen from Mexico, and says others that were offered as ancient were modern fakes. i

Pedestrians pass the display windows at Bonhams New York auction house. The Mexican government accuses Bonhams of auctioning off artifacts that were stolen from Mexico, and says others that were offered as ancient were modern fakes. Bebeto Matthews/AP hide caption

toggle caption Bebeto Matthews/AP
Pedestrians pass the display windows at Bonhams New York auction house. The Mexican government accuses Bonhams of auctioning off artifacts that were stolen from Mexico, and says others that were offered as ancient were modern fakes.

Pedestrians pass the display windows at Bonhams New York auction house. The Mexican government accuses Bonhams of auctioning off artifacts that were stolen from Mexico, and says others that were offered as ancient were modern fakes.

Bebeto Matthews/AP

Bonhams Auction House sold more than 100 pre-Hispanic artifacts Wednesday in New York City, including several Aztec and Mayan warrior statues. The Mexican government claims that at least half of the pieces are fake, and the rest are stolen. In a Spanish-language statement translated by NPR, Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History said:

Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History condemns the auction by Bonhams in New York of pre-Columbian, Mexican artifacts. The auction took place without regard to legal and ethical norms. The sale not only violated Mexican laws but the Treaty of Cooperation Between the United States of America and the United Mexican States Providing For The Recovery and Return of Stolen Archaeological, Historical and Cultural Properties that was signed on July 17, 1970.

The institute says it made Bonhams aware of the "violation" through Mexico's Consulate General in New York. The institute says its experts went to New York to examine the artifacts, and they found that several showed evidence of modern manufacturing.

NPR's Carrie Kahn told our Newscast Unit on Tuesday that a spokeswoman for Bonhams said the auction house's specialists researched the artifacts thoroughly and stood by their assessment. The Associated Press reports:

A Bonhams spokeswoman also said, "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.

But Wednesday, a Bonhams spokeswoman said the auction house is evaluating "new information" about the items.

Mark Van Stone, a Mayan art expert at Southwestern College, told NPR that the legal threshold for auctioning questionable items in the U.S. is rather low. "If you can smuggle an item into the United States, there's no law against buying and selling it," says Van Stone. "Even if it was illegally obtained and illegally smuggled. Once it's past customs, there's no law against buying and selling it."

Van Stone also raised some questions about the Mexican government's claims. "I've looked at the catalog, and I would not say half the material in that catalog is fake. I would say, at most, 5 or 10 percent."

But Van Stone also notes that a lot of art auctioned in the U.S. has questionable origins. "Generally if you buy something that you don't know the provenience of before, say, 1980, there's a good chance you're buying something that was smuggled into the United States. A lot of collections have things that came in dubiously."

The highest-valued piece at the Bonhams' auction went for $68,750.

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