Albuquerque Museum Returns Long-Forgotten Sculpture Cache to Mexico | Smart News

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The ceremony comes amid a global campaign to repatriate objects removed from their home countries in disturbing circumstances.
Nora Vanesky / Albuquerque Museum Foundation

About five months ago, a box containing a dozen small, century-old sculptures was rediscovered in the warehouses of the Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico, where it had remained for 15 years. The box label referred to the relics as “pre-Columbian” – also known as pre-Hispanic, the term refers to the period before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492.

“Immediately, alarm bells started ringing in our heads,” Andrew Rodgers, president and CEO of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation, which raises funds for the museum, told Terry Tang of the ‘Associated Press (AP).

Later investigations have traced the obscure acquisition of the objects, which experts believe were made in modern Mexico between 300 and 600 BCE. In a ceremony this week, the foundation returned the artifacts to the local Mexican consulate; the sculptures will ultimately be entrusted to the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.

Among the items in the box were bowls associated with burial graves, Olmec greenstone carvings and a figurine from Zacatecas, a city near “extensive” pre-Hispanic ruins, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. After the objects resurfaced at the Albuquerque museum, officials began digging into their provenance, suspecting they may have been sold under questionable circumstances.

Rodgers’ assistant found an appraisal form from when the objects were acquired in 2007, which had been given to the museum by a donor. Then Rodgers tracked down the dealer, an elderly woman living in New York. She still had note cards documenting the sale of the artifacts to the donor in 1985, telling the museum that the carvings had been “purchased on the side of a road in Mexico or from dealers in New England.”

“I don’t think anyone had any malicious intent,” Rodgers told the AP. “I just think there wasn’t a lot of clarity or transparency in this kind of practice 30, 40, 50 years ago.”

After the relics were authenticated by experts from the University of New Mexico and Emory University in Atlanta, museum officials contacted the Mexican consulate to begin the repatriation process.

“Heritage assets such as these belong in Mexico, where they can be properly preserved, studied and displayed,” Rodgers said in a statement quoted by clean artit’s taylor dafoe.

In recent years, the cultural sphere has witnessed a global push to repatriate cultural heritage objects that have been removed from their country of origin under troubling circumstances. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron sent a shock through the museum world when he advocated for the return of artifacts taken from African countries “without consent” during colonial times. France’s restitution plan has been bogged down by political wrangling, but other initiatives are underway.

The Smithsonian Board of Regents, for example, recently voted in favor of disposing of 29 Beninese bronzes held at the National Museum of African Art. In Canada, Indigenous groups have asked the Vatican to return artworks and artifacts sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries.

Mexican authorities have also made concerted efforts to continue the repatriation of heritage objects, reported ART news Shanti Escalante-De Mattei earlier this year. The social media movement #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (#MyHeritageIsNotForSale), for example, seeks to discourage the buying and selling of artifacts important to the country’s national identity. An official unit for the protection of cultural heritage has been created to monitor the illegal market. At a ceremony last year that saw Italy return three archaeological artifacts to Mexico, officials stressed that recovering cultural relics was a top priority.

“Mexican heritage is not a luxury item for a collector,” Culture Secretary Alejandra Frausto Guerrero said at the time. “It’s not something that should decorate a house. It’s part of our roots. [These pieces] bear witness to who we are as a country.

Rodgers tells the AP that upon finding the box of forgotten sculptures, “a few people” suggested the foundation keep the relics because “they might not be worth a ton” and “‘Mexico doesn’t really care about that kind things”. But that’s just not the case.

“We appreciate and acknowledge the steps taken by the Albuquerque Museum Foundation to voluntarily return these archaeological pieces to the Mexican nation,” Norma Ang Sánchez, Mexican consul, said in a statement. “These are important pieces of memory and identity for our Indigenous communities, and we are happy that they are being recovered.”



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