Christie’s is auctioning off ancient Taino items. This native group wants to stop them

FAN Editor

British auction house Christie’s is placing dozens of Taino artifacts up for bids in Paris on Wednesday. But in a growing campaign online, many who identify with the indigenous people are requesting that Christie’s stop the upcoming sale – and return it to their homelands. 

Stephanie Bailey, the cacike, or chief of the Arayeke Yukayek, a Taino tribe with dozens of members based in the U.S., told CBS News this week that she and her community are against the auction.  

“The overall sentiment of the Taino people is, we feel it’s wrong, we feel it’s wrong for Christie’s to be auctioning off anything that belongs to our ancestors,” she said. 

Christie's
Left to right: A breastplate and vessel are among the 38 Taino works being auctioned at Christie’s. Christie’s

Christie’s is holding its “Pre-Columbian Art & Taino Masterworks” auction next week, which includes 38 works that “speak to the creativity of the Taino,” according to the renowned auction house’s description of the sale. Some of the Taino pieces up for grabs can fetch bids from $5,000 to $200,000, and the collection includes manatee bone ritual spatulas used in ceremonies, shell ornaments and stone-three-pointers that depict deities. Many of the works, which came from a “private collection,” have been loaned and displayed at many well-known museums throughout the world, Christie’s said.

The Taino were among the first peoples in the Americas to encounter Christopher Columbus in 1492 when he and his crew arrived in Hispaniola, where Haiti and the Dominican Republic sit today. However, they were virtually wiped out in the decades after Columbus first arrived on the island. Their descendants today have taken issue with how Christie’s has depicted them being “swept out of existence” and want them to stop the sale. Christie’s has removed their website feature on the items, but bidders can still sign up and explore the pieces. 

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Bailey said she initially felt “hurt” when she realized what the auction company was doing. “Hearing that they feel that we are extinct, it just, it breaks our heart, quite literally, it makes us, a lot of us infuriated, to say the least, because we’re here, we’re present,” she said.

An online push to prevent the sale has taken shape in recent days, with a petition created by one of Bailey’s members that now has more than 5,000 signatures. Among the requests is to have them displayed in the Dominican Republic. 

They aren’t the only ones that have raised issues with Christie’s upcoming auction. In a statement directed to the French foreign ministry last month, the Mexican embassy in Paris expressed “profound concern” for two auctions selling off re-Columbian items, one of them that happened last Tuesday by a French auction house and the other happening on Wednesday with the Taino works. Mexican authorities considered the pieces — which includes centuries-old works from Aztec and Mayan cultures — as part of its “national heritage” and should have possession of them instead. 

A Christie’s spokesperson responded, saying they “recognize” they have “a duty to carefully research the art and objects we handle and sell.”

“We devote considerable resources to investigating the provenance of works we offer for sale and have specific procedures, including the requirement that our Sellers provide evidence of ownership. In the case of the upcoming sale, these checks have been carried out and we have no reason to believe that the property is from an illicit source or that its sale would be contrary to French law,” the spokesperson said. 

It’s not the first time Christie’s has faced criticism for auctioning off similar items. In 2020, Nigeria was “saddened” by the sale of two sculptures belonging to the eastern Igbo community after an art historian told the BBC they were “looted” from shrines during the civil war in the late 1960s. Christie’s rejected the claim. 

Still, Bailey thanked Christie’s for giving “value” to the Taino culture. But with that value, she said, “has to come respect.” 

“We don’t want the artifacts to just to go missing, we don’t want them to just sit in somebody’s home on their mantle to be a conversation piece,” she said. “Return them to their rightful places, return them back to our ancestral lands, so that we can honor them appropriately.”

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