Paris art sale goes ahead despite Mexico protests

Mexico filed a formal complaint against the auction in France of pre-Columbian artefacts including sacred jewellery worn by a shaman and the figurine of a fertility goddess (AFP Photo/Philippe LOPEZ)

Paris (AFP) - A controversial sale of pre-Columbian art went ahead in Paris on Wednesday despite furious calls from Mexico for it to be halted.

The Mexican government filed a formal complaint against the auction of 120 religious and cultural artefacts from several private collections, with UNESCO also urging auctioneers Millon to postpone the sale.

But despite a last-minute appeal by Mexico's ambassador for the French authorities to intervene, the auction went ahead, with a statue of an Aztec goddess selling for five times its estimate.

The stone figure of Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of water and protector of births, went for 377,000 euros ($417,000).

Sculpted from volcanic rock, it shows her kneeling and looking at the sky.

Another kneeling figure of the Aztec mother goddess Coatlicue sold for 97,500 euros to bring the auction total to more than 1.2 million euros.

Mexico insisted that 95 of the 120 works were part of its "cultural heritage", with its ambassador to France Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo warning that some "could turn out to be imitations".

He told reporters that as many as 23 could be recently made fakes, according to experts from the country's National Institute of Anthropology and History.

But Millon went ahead with the auction, and all but a handful of the artefacts were sold.

Last week it agreed to withdraw a pre-Hispanic artefact from neighbouring Guatemala from the sale.

Millon said the core of the auction was "part of the last French collections (of Pre-Columbian art) put together in the postwar period.

"It is remarkable in terms of its origin and prestige," it said, adding that some of the pieces had featured in major exhibitions and in "indispensable works on pre-Columbian art".

- 'This encourages pillage' -

But Mexico -- which has been increasingly vocal about protecting its indigenous heritage -- condemned the decision to press on.

"We regret that despite the efforts undertaken, we did not get the auction house to cancel the sale," Gomez Robledo said shortly before the first objects went under the hammer at the Drouot auction house.

He said the cancellation of the Paris sale would have been "a first step towards the restitution of authentic cultural property of Mexico."

"This type of trade encourages pillage, illegal trafficking and counterfeiting practised by organised transnational crime networks," the diplomat told reporters, lamenting that the artefacts were being treated as "mere objects of decoration".

Under the government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico has stepped up efforts to reclaim its cultural heritage.

As well as calling for artworks to be returned, it has accused major fashion houses of cultural appropriation for lifting native designs for their clothes.