St Louis society attempts second sale of antiquities

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The Archaeological Institute of America might revoke the group’s charter

Zapotec Seated Figural Urn, Monte Alban IIIB, Late Classic, ca A.D. 550-950 (est £1,900-£3,100)

The leadership of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has once again condemned the St Louis chapter of its organisation for consigning artefacts to auction. Held by the society since 1911-12, the two objects, a Mayan vase from Quiriqua in Honduras (est £3,800-£5,000) and a Zapotec urn from Monte Alban, Mexico (est £1,900-£3,100) are due to be sold at Bonhams, New York, on 12 November. Last month, the group put up its “Harageh Treasure” of Egyptian artefact for auction at Bonhams London, but the collection was pulled at the last minute and privately acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an undisclosed sum.

In a statement reaffirming “in the strongest terms its opposition to the actions of the St Louis Society”, the AIA’s leadership announced that they will conduct a hearing in January 2015 to decide whether the society’s charter should be suspended or revoked. The AIA may also amend its regulations and codes of practice to halt sales by other affiliate societies.

The AIA current bylaws, which state that no chapter can sell artefacts without a proper provenance, do not apply to the Mesoamerican objects as both have a clear history and have been published. They were given to the St Louis Society by Sylvanus Morley, a Mesoamerican archaeologist, in return for the organisation partially underwriting his fieldwork, says Thomas Guderjan, a spokesperson for the Maya Research Program. “When [the objects] came up for auction, the Morley connection was not made apparent. With this provenance, it is certain the value of the objects has likely doubled,” he says.

The sale of works from public collections is generally looked down upon, unless it is to fund further acquisitions. Recently, the Northampton Museum in the UK fell under fire for deaccessioning a statue of Sekhemka. Guderjan said: “It is our understanding from AIA St Louis members that these sales are being conducted by the board of directors without approval from the membership and that efforts to recall the board are underway.”

After it sold the Egyptian treasure, the St Louis Society said in a statement that the funds raised would be used to “re-establish its Community Archaeology programme, aimed at encouraging interest in science and archaeology in students 10 to 14 years old”. It is unclear if the profits from this latest auction will be used for the same purpose.

Neither Bonhams nor the St Louis Society would comment on the forthcoming sale when contacted.

Maya Ek Chuah Effigy Vase, Quirigua, Late Classic, ca A.D. 550-950 (est £3,800-£5,000)

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