It was the morning of July 11, 2022, when the Consul General of Mexico in New York City, Jorge Islas López, appeared at Arte Primitivo-Howard S. Rose Gallery. He was there as a representative of Mexico, trying to stop an auction and requesting the return of pre-Columbian goods that were being marketed online by the gallery. That day, he filed a reportwith Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit. An investigation was launched.
That morning, Mexico rejected the auction on social media, as part of #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (MyHeritageIsNotForSale), an online campaign that is led by the Mexican government. The campaign seeks to raise awareness of archeological goods that belong to Mexico and that are abroad illegally.
The Secretariat of Culture of Mexico and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) disapproved two auctions conducted by Howard S. Rose Gallery because the gallery was selling pre-Columbian goods belonging to the cultural patrimony of Mexico, according to the bureau and institute. On July 11, 2022, the Secretariat said experts of INAH had identified 1,384 goods belonging to Mexico that were being sold in the auction. And on September 26, 2022, INAH’s experts identified more pieces, 152 of which were being sold by the gallery.
On November 10, 2022, Islas López said that he was going to reach out to all of the corresponding authorities regarding this case and rejected the auction.
“Nobody has the right to take the cultural and historical patrimony of a society and a country. Cultural patrimony tells us stories of the origins, the beginnings of a society,” Islas López said in an interview with ARTnews, speaking in the New York officeof the Consulate General of Mexico. “A community should not steal the identity of another community.”
The Mexican Secretariat of Culture asked to take “ethics and respect for the cultural patrimony of Mexico” into account and said “it will continue to dissuade people from buying and selling looted goods,”according to a statement published by the bureau on July 11, 2022. But the auction house proceeded with the sale scheduled to end that day. The statement also said that the goods come from “the Coast of the Gulf of Mexico, different parts of the state of Guerrero, and from the west, the southeast and the Mexican Plateau” and are “defined and protected by Mexico’s Federal Law on Archeological, Artistic and Historic Monuments and Areas,” which prohibits the extraction and export of archeological goods.
Mexican law on archeological goods goes as far back as 1827, when tariffs for maritime customs and borders of Mexico started prohibiting the extraction and export of them.
Weeks went by, and while Mexican officials were doing what they could to recover the goods, INAH’s experts made another finding.
On September 26, 2022, INAH said that its experts identified more goods. This time there were 152 pieces which were being marketed online by the gallery. Some of them were Mayan and Olmec figures such as anOlmec stone serpent head and a Maya amber pendantand figure. The institute emphatically disapproved of the auction, which it said “includes many archaeological pieces that originated in Mexico,” according to a statement published that day. INAH said these pieces are not luxury items but proof of the identity and memory of Mexico’s earliest Indigenous communities.
The statement also said that INAH filed a report with the Attorney General of Mexico or FGR (a Spanish acronym for Fiscalía General de la República) and reached out to Interpol and the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs.
Islas López pointed out that INAH does not have records of export or exit permits of the archaeological goods from the two auctions in question.
“Presumably, those goods were looted or extracted from Mexico in an illegal manner,” Islas López said of all of the pieces identified so far. “It’s the job of the corresponding authorities to investigate and if it turns out that our presumption is true, that the report we filed is true, the authorities will execute their power and repatriate the goods.”
To identify the goods, INAH’s experts went through photos on the gallery’s website. Diego Prieto Hernández, the general director of INAH, said that the experts are able to determine with “a certain degree of accuracy” whether the pieces belong to the cultural patrimony of Mexico or not.
“If there are any doubts, we would have to resort to practices such as photogrammetry or collecting samples,” Prieto Hernández said. “But in general, the inspections our experts do and the professional opinion they have on the photos can be very reliable. Let’s say, 90 percent of reliability.”
The Owner Responds
“Just leave. You’re not welcome here,” Howard S. Rose said he told Islas López on the morning of July 11 in the gallery
Rose, the owner of Arte Primitivo-Howard S. Rose Gallery, said he asked Islas López to leave because “he was making unreasonable demands.”
To the claims made by Mexico, Rose responded saying that the country has taken a “hardline and rigid stance.”
“We tried to be sensitive to the political leanings and the feelings of everybody. But Mexico has taken a very hardline stance on this. In my opinion, it’s not only not realistic, it’s actually hurting their cause,” Rose said from his gallery located in Upper Manhattan. “First of all, if they had everything back that was ever excavated or taken out of Mexico, I can’t possibly imagine what they would ever do with it,” he said.
As it turns out, the archaeological goods of the two auctions in question do not have exit and export permits issued by INAH, as confirmed by Rose himself for this reporting. However, he added that he and his business have not broken any US laws.
“Any items that were shipped were done so legally under United States laws and requirements, with all export documents being correct and transparent. No INAH documents are required by US law,” Rose said. “We comply with US laws and have not broken any.”
As for when he acquired the archeological goods, Rose said that he “strives to offer items from old collections that have been in the US or Europe for many decades or generations.”
Rose was asked to return artifacts before, but the circumstances were different, he said. He once sold Egyptian pieces for a consignor, who, years later, was arrested by Homeland Security at JFK Airport. The consignor had obtained some goods illegally and the authorities were investigating him. They challenged everything the consignor had ever done, Rose said, including the provenance of the Egyptian pieces. Rose said the pieces were confiscated and he refunded money to his clients.
Rose shared that story to show that he complies with the US authorities, he said, and added he’s never acquired goods illegally. He is, however, displeased that US laws are not very clear on “the date that a provenance has to go back to.” To Rose, “strict guidelines that everybody [including antiquities dealers] can understand” are needed.
“This is the dilemma that we face. The laws are not clear from what they’re passing down to us. This industry has been trying for decades to get straight laws. But the laws are basically subject to convenient interpretation,” Rose argued.
According to Rose, Mexico will continue to have a flow of illegal artifacts unless its government starts compensating Mexican farmers, who find a lot of pieces in their lands and sell them in the black market instead of reporting them. Rose believes this is because authorities excavate and cause farmers to lose the use of their land.
When asked how he knows what Mexican farmers do and if he’s ever been to Mexico, Rose said he’s heard stories, read accounts, and dealt with people over the years.
INAH responded to Rose, saying they let anyone who finds an archeological good keep it if the person wants to become the custodian of it. The person just has to register it. Archeological pieces are “free from any form of commercialization” according to Mexican law, INAH said, so in that sense, they wouldn’t be able to pay for pieces that are found. And INAH stressed that it has “the infrastructure and the professionals needed to protect, preserve, investigate and exhibit the cultural goods that belong to Mexico.”
To his clients who already bought the goods from the two auctions and potential clients who might be thinking of buying from his gallery, Rose wants to assure them that all of the paperwork of the pieces from his gallery is legitimate. If there happens to be a mistake with any of the provenances, he’ll take responsibility.
“I would tell them, to the best of our ability, we have investigated every provenance. We stand behind every provenance. If there’s a problem with it, we would make it right to you,” Rose said. “If we were given a false provenance, you have to own that. You have to stand up to the responsibility. If I made a mistake, I’m going to be there for it.”
INAH Says 40 Pieces Are Fake
The authenticity of some of the goods has been called into question. Islas López said that out of the total of pieces that the experts reviewed, they determined that “40 of those pieces are fake.” Prieto Hernández, the director of INAH, corroborated that statement, saying that “the fake ones are easy to identify.”
Rose responded, “They’re just saying that because they’re not having any success reclaiming [them] as repatriation.”
Among the items that INAH said were fake are a Veracruz seated figure that was advertised as being of pre-Columbian origin. In fact, according to INAH, it was manufactured with modern tools.
“We can determine if a piece is of modern manufacturing, simply by looking at its morphology, which is usually atypical,” Prieto Hernández said, adding, “Sometimes our experts can tell right away when observing the morphology of stone sculptures that emery is present—it can even be seen in the photograph itself. And during Pre-Hispanic times, there was no emery.” To which Rose replied saying “you can’t tell from a photograph”, especially if the pieces “haven’t been put under a microscope.”
Prieto Hernández further explained that the people who manufacture these types of pieces are artisans and that he and his team are familiar with their work.
“They make beautiful things and want to make them look old,” he said. “We always talk to artisans and tell them that it’s best if they sell those things as handcrafts so they don’t get into trouble.”
While some of the pieces from Rose’s gallery have been tested in a laboratory to prove their authenticity, others have not. However, Rose said, “We’ve been doing this long enough. We know what real and fake look like.” Rose also said he does tests on pieces if something about them seems amiss, but that such examinations can often prove costly.
A History of Pre-Columbian Forgeries
Erin L. Thompson, one of the few professors of art crime in the US, said that forgeries of pre-Columbian artifacts are common in the market.
“Artisans have been making new artworks that look like pre-Columbian art since the mid-19th century, whether as reproductions, tourist souvenirs, or outright forgeries,” Thompson said. “The market for pre-Columbian art has been awash in fakes ever since there began to be a market at all, and forgers specialize in objects that customers want and are willing to pay a lot for.”
Looking over Howard S. Rose Gallery’s past sales, Thompson said she saw many categories of artifacts that are often faked such as Colima dogs and other artifacts of West Mexico. Some of the forgeries in the field of Pre-Columbian art, she said, include “well-preserved objects with only minor breakages, if any,” and “subjects that appeal to collectors’ tastes for the exotic, gruesome, erotic, and cute.”
“If you see a Moche pot shaped like an embracing couple, or an object associated with the ball game, or an adorable Colima dogs, and especially if they are in near-perfect condition,” she explained, “you should know that there is a chance it was illegally dug up from a grave or archeological site.
“But,” she emphasized, “there’s a far greater chance that it was made by one of the thousands of artisans working for nearly 200 years to fool buyers like you.”
ARTnews reviewed the two subpoenas that Rose received from the New York assistant DA regarding the two auctions. Rose was ordered to provide documents, photographs and correspondence related to the sale and consignment of the auctions on November 14, 2022, as stated in the subpoenas.
Rose said that he “sent them the consignment and provenance information as requested,” and that he is willing to cooperate with the authorities.
According to the subpoenas, Rose was only asked to respond to 81 archaeological pieces for the auction of July and 27 pieces for the auction of September. The quantity is less than what INAH and the Secretariat of Culture of Mexico said the gallery was selling.
The authorities are still investigating. When asked for the case, the Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit said, “yes, we have an ongoing investigation into this matter.”
It would seem not all of the archaeological pieces of the two auctions were sold, as Rose said that “no auction ever sells 100 percent of the offering, except for a one in a million chance.”
Since 2022, the Consulate General of Mexico in NY, led by Islas López, has recovered and repatriated many artifacts such as old manuscripts, Olmec pieces, and a document signed by conquistador Hernán Cortés.