Pre-Columbian Art - Costa Rica & the Americas
Often, record setting prices are achieved for Pre-Columbian art at auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Bonham, Skinner or Christie’s. Owners and buyers come from all over the world. Pre-Columbian art treasures also come from Costa Rica. In November 2014, thirty-one Latin American artists had their works auctioned by Sotheby’s for a record US$33.9M; that record was then surpassed at another auction for Latin American Artists at Christie’s which fetched US24.3M. These pieces were also by Latin American artists and, in this case, were from the Post-Columbian era.
Pre-Columbian Art is a fascinating topic. Most interesting for the author is:
- When the art or artifact was made,
- Where it came from,
- The ongoing challenges of rightful ownership and
- Places where it can be viewed.
There has been an ongoing attempt to restrict and monitor the trade of some Pre-Columbian Art on the international circuit and recently, the law has come to the rescue.
Rescuing Pre-Columbian Art
Since the mid-1970s, four Latin American countries began lobbying the international art world to recoup their country’s cultural property, including Pre Columbian art. They argued that it is a part of their heritage and that was ‘illegally’ removed. Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, spearheaded the actions in international courts, seeking to prevent the trade of and seeking the return of pieces belonging to their peoples. They also argued that these missing masterpieces were covertly exported from their native shores by persons dating as far back as the late 1800’s. The missing items are of great cultural relevance, for the people and their culture, having deprived them of significant religious, historic and artistic treasures.
Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, along with several international agencies joined forces to prevent further trafficking of art considered ‘pieces of national interest’. The group lobbied for an international ban on the sale of any country’s cultural property, especially that of the Pre-Columbian era. Further, they continue to seek to protect items from the Hispanic and Colonial eras that came after the Pre-Columbian times.
The International Council of Museums (ICOM), other Central American and Mexican, regulatory bodies, along with various cultural and heritage groups, published the Red List of Endangered Cultural Property of Central America and Mexico. This list is designed to provide all necessary information to art dealers, auctioneers, private collectors, customs officials, Interpol (as well as other police agencies), and traders in antiquities, with detailed information on individual items that have been identified as ‘stolen’, or ‘missing’ from their owners.
What is Pre-Columbian Art?
‘Pre-Columbian Art’ and ‘Pre-Columbian Artifacts’ are not usually distinguishable. Vessels and tools that were created for a practical purpose in that era before the Spanish conquest may now be considered as a piece of art instead of what they were original designed to accomplish.
Throughout Central and South America, various objects of historical significance have been uncovered by archaeologists. Some are in the form of magnificent architectural constructions, or giant stone heads, popping-out of their jungle hideaway. Other smaller items, such as primitive tools, pottery, precious stones, and carvings, are found regularly by persons working the soil. Some tools are still used in the daily life by the people of the region, although they have tremendous value on the international market.. Archaeologists search for, and retrieve artifacts (US spelling) or artefacts (English spelling). The items recovered are considered both ‘art’ and ‘artifact’ if they were made during the Pre-Columbian period.
Artifacts are items created, or given shape to, by people that used them. Artifacts provide important records, and indicators, about previous civilizations and how they lived. Each item found is a link in a chain that can unfold a mystery. They hold important clues that may help to solving the taunting question, “What was life like then?” Many artifacts have details etched or painted on them that tell a tale. It may be a small link, or a detail that can help recreate a picture of what transpired at a time when there was no written language to record events.
There is a distinction between artifacts and ecofacts (or biofacts); both may be found at the same location but they provide different clues to researchers. Each is subjected to careful analysis and deciphering to ascertain its true relevance. Ecofacts or biofacts are natural objects such as rocks used to contain fires for warmth or cooking, or pieces of wood, seeds, or pollen. They provide evidence of how that civilization lived, their diets, their health, the sophistication of the society; things that offer great insight into their cultures. However, any object that has been modified or altered by man, in any way, is then defined as an artifact, irrespective of whether it was used for practical or figurative use.
Costa Rica & Pre-Columbian Art
Pre-Columbian Art encompasses all artwork, pottery, carved idols, precious metals works, jewels, and architectural structures, created by people living in the Pre-Columbian period or defined as prior to the Spanish conquest. The first indigenous tribes originated in the Caribbean, North, South and Central America, living there from as early as 18000 BCE. The Pre-Columbian period closes in the 1500’s when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. All those items created during that time are now Pre-Columbian Artifacts (and ecofacts). Few of those civilizations used or understood any written language to record historic details, and important events. Historical accounts were passed-down through the generations verbally in folklore. Some details were physically expressed on functional items that are now historic records considered treasured art.
In 12000 BCE, the Paleo Indians (18000 BCE- 8000BCE) moved southward across the North American continent into what is now Central America. Archaeological evidence indicates that when they arrived in Nicaragua, they settled along the route, which includes the Greater Nicoya territory and also north-western Costa Rica, round-about 10,000 BCE. Artifacts recovered from these areas include remnants of their villages, burial sites, precious works of jade, pottery, and other handmade works. The finds include spearheads, axes, and other tools that were fashioned for survival. Today, some of those artifacts are housed in museums in Costa Rica and others in ‘private collections’. Not all of those ‘collections’ are legal and so the artifacts remain hidden.
Pre-Columbian Art comes from the Mesoamerican period which has been further divided and named into more periods. The Pre-Columbian art and artifacts found in Costa Rica includes beautiful paintings, masks, tools, and other creations that may also have been used in their day-to-day life.