Guatemala recovers a Mayan stela that was about to be auctioned in 2019

A Mayan stele from the 8th century AD, from the archaeological site of Piedras Negras – northwest of Guatemala – was delivered this Monday by its holder to the Guatemalan government, in a ceremony at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, after its auction was stopped in 2019 due to a request from this country.

The archaeological piece, called Stela number 9, disappeared from Guatemala in the 1960s (during the civil war of the Central American country) and was bought in 1963 in Paris by Manichak and Jean Aurance, a couple of collectors.

In September 2019, after the death of her husband, Manichak Aurance auctioned her collection of more than 120 objects of pre-Columbian art, in which there were pieces from various Latin American countries such as Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Guatemala.

Mexico unsuccessfully requested to stop the sale because it considered that the Mexican objects had left its country illegally, but could not do so as they did not appear in the inventories.

In the case of Guatemala, photographs of the stela taken on its discovery in 1899 were preserved, so this piece was removed from auction.

Through the mediation of France and UNESCO (whose headquarters are in Paris), Manichak Aurance chose to voluntarily return the piece to Guatemala.

“The voluntary delivery of this fragment shows the importance of the UNESCO Convention of 1970 in the fight against trafficking in cultural property”, explained during the delivery ceremony Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO.

The Guatemalan ambassador to France, Francisco R. Gross Hernández-Kramer, wanted to emphasize that this return coincided with the bicentennial of the country’s independence.

For Gross Hernández-Kramer: “Guatemala, and the whole of humanity, recover part of its history today.”

Square in shape (about 50 centimeters high, 46 long and 5 wide), this Mayan stela made in the 8th century in limestone represents the headdress of the ruler 4 of Piedras Negras, who came to power in the year 729 of the Christian era.

The piece was part of a larger set, 2.85 by one meter wide, discovered at the foot of a pyramid in Piedras Negras, an important political center “where we find some of the best examples of classical Mayan statues,” explained the French historian. Dominique Michelet, specialist in the art of this pre-Columbian town.

Stela 9 had been scheduled for auction in September 2019 with a starting price of 35,000 euros.

Restitutory in good faith

Manichak Aurance expressed his joy to see that the work returned to its country of origin, “I know it is going to a good place”.

Gross Hernández-Kramer wanted to highlight the uniqueness of this return made voluntarily by the holder of the piece: “We opened a gap within the UNESCO Convention itself, because there is no good faith restitution figure.”

The Guatemalan ambassador cited French President Emmanuel Macron as an example of empathy for countries that have seen their original art stolen, since the French country is involved in a process of restitution of artistic assets to its former colonies in Africa.

A concept that “has to be developed,” says Gross Hernández-Kramer, because currently only “about 5% of the parts that are claimed are recovered.”

The Mayan stela is scheduled to be exhibited at the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in the capital of Guatemala, where, “in the medium term,” according to Gross Hernández-Kramer, it is expected to be reassembled with the other three pieces that remain. still in Piedras Negras.

However, a fragment of the stela is still missing, where a plume with quetzal feathers can be seen.

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