Chile’s Efforts to Recover Indigenous Treasures

A European auction house rejected Chile’s request to prevent the sale of an ancient Mapuche relic. This incident shines a light on Chile’s quest to reclaim artifacts. The most famous case involves a moai statue that has been in England for over 150 years.

The Chilean government recently asked that Christie’s Auction House return an ancient Mapuche scepter up for auction. Christie’s rejected the request and sold the 800-year-old scepter to an anonymous buyer. The effort highlighted the government’s attempts to recover relics belonging to Chile’s indigenous communities.

A Mapuche Scepter in Paris

Christie’s held a live auction in Paris on Feb. 9, “Quetzalcoatl: Serpent À Plumes,” during which it sold over 30 artifacts from communities indigenous to the Andes and Mesoamerican regions. Among them was the Mapuche scepter, a small ceremonial staff, and, despite the Chilean government’s emphatic request that the scepter be returned, Christie’s refused and sold it for CLP$24 million (USD$33,600).

The Mexican government made a similar request, and even pressed charges against Christie’s, arguing that it was illegal to export ancient artifacts from Mexico. The auction house defended itself, responding that “the objects being sold in Quetzalcoatl were offered as part of a legal and transparent sale.”

This is not the first time that Christie’s has been accused of selling stolen goods. In 2020, the Nigerian government accused the auction house of selling artifacts that had been looted from shrines during the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s. In response, Christie’s released a statement that it had found no evidence that the artifacts had been removed during the conflict.

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Preventing Future Auctions

It is unknown how many relics have been smuggled out of Chile, but the country’s Investigations Police recovered some 24,000 archaeological and paleontological artifacts between 2010 and 2017 alone. Customs officials also recovered another 1,785 artifacts between 2013 and 2020.

In addition to law enforcement efforts, Chile has also taken diplomatic steps to prevent the sale of national artifacts on foreign lands. In 2020, the government signed an agreement with the U.S. to prevent the sale of ancient artifacts without authorization from the country of origin. A similar agreement between Peru and the U.S. has resulted in the recovery of approximately 2,000 artifacts since 1997.

Chile’s agreement with the U.S. went into effect in September 2020, 10 days after 114 artifacts were stolen from the Mapuche Museum of Cañete, located in the Biobío region. Because the U.S. is one of the biggest sellers of these types of artifacts, the accord will prevent collectors from hiding behind the excuse of rescuing the artifacts from the government. The accord, however, only applies to artifacts sold inside the U.S., meaning that artifacts sold and stored in Europe will remain there until additional deals are made with the necessary authorities there.

Recovering the Moai from the British Museum

In 1868, British navy ship HMS Topaze landed at Rapa Nui (Easter Island). According to the accounts of the sailors, they were shown a half-buried moai near the village of Orongo. After excavating it, the HMS Topaze took the statue back to England where it was presented to Queen Victoria, who donated it to the British Museum.

The statute remains there to this day, much to the dismay of Rapa Nui’s residents, who have dubbed it Hoa Hakananai’a “lost, hidden or stolen friend,” because it is one of the island’s few statues made from basalt, and the only one not on the island.

Moais embody the spirits of prominent ancestors, and the Hoa Hakananai’a is of special significance. It stood at the southern tip of the island, back to the ocean, staring at the Rano Kau volcano, and its purpose was to watch and protect all the people on the island.

The latest attempts to recover the statue took place in 2018 when a Rapa Nui delegation went to London to negotiate. During their visit they performed a ceremony for the statue where they chanted, “Here come your sons and grandsons to get you.”

After the ceremony, the governor of Rapa Nui, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, told journalists, “My grandma, who passed away at almost 90 years, she never got the chance to see her ancestor [the moai].” She added, “We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul.”

After the visit, the British Museum sent a small delegation to the island in April 2019 to survey the area and determine if the island had the capacity to properly store and protect the statue. The museum has yet to announce its final decision.

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