A ROW has erupted after another attempt by South American interests to intervene in a tribal art sale in Paris.
Shortly after a monumental painted stucco statue of a Mayan divinity took a record €2.5m hammer (£2.27m) in Paris last week, Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History announced that it thought the statue was a recent fake.
Paris auction house Binoche et Giquello, who sold it as part of the collection of the Swiss industrialist Monsieur H. Law on March 21, had catalogued the piece as made in the Rio Bec or Chenes Province of Mexico around 550-950AD.
Jacques Blazy, the tribal art expert who worked with the auction house on cataloguing the statue, and had been fielding numerous press enquiries after the Mexican government's announcement generated international media interest, was robust in his defence of the statue last week.
He said that there was "no problem of authenticity", that the piece (which has a provenance back to 1976) has been extensively published and exhibited, most recently in 1998-9 in the Rath Museum in Geneva. It has been seen by many experts around the world and has never been questioned before.
He also said that the piece had been on view for a month before the auction and that the Mexican authorities had not questioned it during that time, only making their announcement after the record sale.
This is the latest controversy in a series of events in France relating to the sensitivity of Mexico and other South American countries to sales of their cultural heritage.
In September 2008 the Mexican Embassy obtained a court order to halt the disposal of 85 lots in a sale of Pre-Columbian art mounted by the same Parisian auctioneers in conjunction with auction house Pierre Bergé, claiming the goods had been illegally exported.
The lots were seized by the Office Central de la Lutte Contre le Trafic des Beins Culturels (the French bureau against trafficking in cultural goods) and were impounded pending a judicial inquiry which lasted months, although Binoche and Giquello were finally allowed to sell the goods in June 2010.
The Mayan statue currently in question was the stand-out item in a 215-lot sale of predominantly carved stone and terracotta figures assembled by a collector over a 25-year period which raised a total of over €7.4m/£6.73m (including premium).
It stands 5ft 1in (1.56m) high and is the largest Mayan statue of this form so far recorded.
Made of stucco around a stone core and retaining a high proportion of its original polychrome decoration, its seated position implies it would originally have been placed on a chair or throne.
Sporting a large blue-painted, turban-like hat and a mask of terrifying aspect, the figure holds a battle axe in one hand and in the other a blue-painted shield with an orange centre, perhaps emblematic of the sun.
The piece was acquired by the collector from the Galerie Mermoz, the specialist Parisian tribal art dealer, who had exhibited the piece at the Paris Biennale in 1986. Prior to that it was in the collection of Alphons Jax.