Pre-Columbian art — A new collector’s guide
Ahead of a landmark sale in Paris on 9 April, Christie’s Pre-Columbian art specialist Fatma Turkkan-Wille and Dr Kim Richter, Senior Research Specialist, Getty Research Institute, offer their expert insights
What is Pre-Columbian art?
Fatma Turkkan-Wille, Christie's Pre-Columbian Art specialist: ‘Before the arrival of the Europeans, a series of long-established and sophisticated civilizations flourished in North and South America, notably across a swathe of twin continents from present-day Chile in the south up to New Mexico.
‘Beyond the more familiar civilizations such as the Incas and the Maya, smaller ethnic groups were able to develop their own distinctive cultures and artistic styles. Pre-Columbian art encompasses the artefacts created by the indigenous peoples from the second millennium BC to the time of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, when the existing cultures were conquered by the Europeans.
‘The earliest civilisation of note is the Olmec (circa 500-400 BC), which was the first major civilisation to have developed in Mexico. The region running south from northern New Mexico through to the northern half of Central America is known as Mesoamerica and was dominated at a certain period by the Maya, whose Classic period runs from circa 200-950 AD, and later by the Aztecs (circa 1200-1541 AD).
Aztec stone snake, circa 1400-1521 A.D. Height 38 cm
‘The Incas established their empire, the largest in Pre-Columbian America — if not the world — in less than 200 years. It first rose in modern-day Peru in the early 13th century. Its craftsmen were especially famed for abstract stonework and textiles, ceramics and wood carving.’
An array of materials was used in Pre-Columbian art. What are the key materials new collectors should know about?
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘A very large proportion of Pre-Columbian art is of terracotta. We’re quite fortunate that many examples have survived, especially from the traditions in Colombia and Ecuador, although the most prolific in South America were the ancient Peruvians, where terracottas span from 900 BC to the Spanish conquest.
‘Costa Rica has a very different but rich tradition. Then once you get to Mexico some of the most well-known ceramics are from the Maya, and are similar to ancient Greek pottery in that they feature great painted narratives on the vases.’
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘Stone sculpture is widespread across the region, but the works of the Mezcala culture are especially intriguing, specifically its stone “temples” — small-scale, colonnaded architectural models, no bigger than 40cm high, which are found in funerary contexts. One of the finest collections was gathered by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Professor Ilya Prigogine, which we are offering at auction in April 2018.
‘Jades are a sub-category within the stone tradition. Prized across ancient Mesoamerica, the green colour was associated by both the Mayans and the Olmec with their Maize God, who ensured that their life-sustaining main crop would re-emerge every spring.
‘In our forthcoming Paris sale, Arts d’Afrique, d'Océanie et d’Amérique, we have an imposing Olmec mask from 900-300 BC made from exquisite green jade (below).
‘Mayans wore a great assortment of jade, a key example being a belt pendant sold for $1,575,500 in 2004 — a world auction record for a Pre-Columbian work of art at the time.’
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘Many of these cultures wore magnificent gold pendants, crowns and pectorals. They were prized as regalia, and high-ranking individuals were buried with ornate ornaments.
‘Modern Colombia had the widest range of object types and styles and working techniques. These include the early use of filigree-working, lost-wax casting, embossing, and the use of precious stones such as amethyst and emeralds to further decorate luxurious ornaments.’
Dr Kim Richter, Senior Research Specialist, Getty Research Institute: ‘In our exhibition, Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, we propose that textile production influenced other art forms — definitely the wall murals of the Moche people, who flourished in Peru around 100-700 AD, but also Andean goldwork. Even though they knew how to cast, they seem to have preferred to work with sheet gold, because they were treating the metal as if it were a textile.’
Textiles and featherwork
Dr Kim Richter: ‘In Golden Kingdoms we analyse indigenous values and show that gold and other precious metals were not always as highly esteemed as other materials such as jadeite, turquoise, shell — especially Spondylus — feathers and textiles.
‘Textiles were probably among the most highly valued works in all of the Americas, especially in the Andes and Mesoamerica, because they were so costly to produce. It took an immense amount of labour — several years in some cases — to create the intricate textiles known from many of these cultures.’
‘Mayan art has some of the most complex iconography of all the Mesoamerican cultures’
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘Very few textiles have survived from Mexico, but there is a huge corpus from the big Andean manufacturing cultures, weaving primarily with local fibres vicuña and cotton, or a mix of the two. What remains today are primarily men’s and women’s clothing such as tunics, dresses and shawls.
‘Feathers were highly prized for various reasons, both among the Aztecs and Maya and the Andean peoples, and the use of these wonderfully coloured Amazonian feathers from parrots and macaws implies a certain amount of trade. The feathers are often attached to textiles and into regalia such as crowns. In 2003, the sale of the collection of Georges Halphen in Paris included a set of feathered tunics.'
Silver and other metals
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘Silver was primarily in use in Peru, where we find marvellous embossed gold and silver vessels and ornaments. The art of metalworking came very late to Mesoamerica.’
What variety of styles do we find in Pre-Columbian art?
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘Mezcala stonework is some of the most abstract within the Mesoamerican lapidary tradition. There are no other cultures so interested in a reductivist, geometric vocabulary to depict human figures or architectural models.
‘The Olmec stonework tradition also includes abstracted artworks. Professor Prigogine collected Olmec celts — oblong jade stones that look like axes, but which are as far away as you get from those tools. Or there are examples such as the stone sceptre we sold in 2004 (pictured below).
Dr Kim Richter: ‘The Olmecs were sophisticated sculptors capable of carving highly naturalistic monumental stone sculptures, such as their colossal heads. They also created smaller sculptures of the human form that were highly stylised and abstracted.’
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘Mayan art has some of the most complex iconography of all the Mesoamerican cultures. The Mayans produced figural works in terracotta where we get a real sense of naturalism and portraiture. From the pilgrimage island of Jaina off the coast of the Yucatán, for example, Jaina figures might depict an aged female face or a young warrior wearing elaborate costumes and adorned with jewellery.’
What have been the landmark exhibitions in this field and what they have taught us?
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York devoted an entire exhibition to Mezcala stone temples, Houses for the Hereafter: Funerary Temples from Guerrero, Mexico. As in ancient Egypt, these small-scale models of structures were created to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. In Zurich the Rietberg Museum has a marvellous exhibition, Nasca. Peru — Searching for Traces in the Desert, illuminating a key ceramic-producing civilisation which flourished in southern Peru from 200 BC to 650 AD.’
Dr Kim Richter: ‘Golden Kingdoms, which we co-curated with the Met’s Andean specialist Dr Joanne Pillsbury, would I hope would be considered one of them. Typically exhibitions focus on one culture or modern nation state, but we look at the emergence, development and spread of gold-working in the ancient Americas, so we cover the Andes, Central America and Mesoamerica.
‘Condition reports are essential, especially for ceramics and even for stone pieces’
‘The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes, a 1992 travelling exhibition that marked 500 years since Columbus’s discovery of the new world, was influential on our show in terms of scope. Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire at San Francisco’s de Young Museum featured the latest recent excavations and discoveries. In Fort Worth, Texas, the Kimbell Art Museum’s The Blood of Kings featured a lot of the recently deciphered Maya texts analysed together with the art. Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes , mounted at The Cleveland Museum of Art in 2012/13, had a nice focus on Andean cultures other than Inca. In 2016, Shamans and Divinities in Pre-Columbian Ecuador at Musée du Quai Branly in Paris was welcome, as few shows have focused on this region.’
What issues should collectors be aware of?
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘Condition reports are essential, especially for ceramics and even for stone pieces. Has there been damage, restoration or repainting? These are the sort of questions you need to consider.’
Which museums have the best collections?
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘The United States has some of the strongest collections. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a marvellous collection, as do the Princeton University Art Museum, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, to name a few.
‘The Germans led expeditions in the mid-19th century that have led to the formation of collections in various ethnographic museums known as Voelkerkunde museums, which are spread across the country. In Vienna the great Weltmuseum (Museum of Ethnology), which was established in 1876, has just reopened after a vast renovation in 2017.
‘In Paris you have the major Musée du Quai Branly and in London the British Museum. The places of origin also have superb collections, such as Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Anthopología and the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, Colombia. Then there are all the fine collections in Lima, Peru, and the Museo Chileano de Arte Precolumbino in Santiago, Chile.’
Dr Kim Richter: ‘Many of the best collections are in Latin America because they have excavated works, which can provide so much more information about the various cultures. I particularly love Museo de Tumbas Reales in Lambayeque, Peru, focused on excavations at Sipan, a site important to the Moche. In the US, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., has a mid-sized, but well-researched and well-published collection.’
Dr Kim Richter: ‘I highly recommend Mary Miller’s Art of Mesoamerica and Rebecca Stone Miller’s Art of the Andes. Pre-Columbian Gold: Technology, Style and Iconography, edited by Colin McEwan, is a useful guide to Colombian and Central American gold.’
Fatma Turkkan-Wille: ‘It is very important to read, read and read, and to visit as many museum collections as possible to train your eye and understand the different styles. I would strongly recommend the following books for any collector: Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica (1985) by G. Berjonneau and J.Louis Sonnery; Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico and Central America (1968) by Hasso von Winning is a classic, as is Art of Ancient Peru and Ecuador (1968) by Alan Lapiner and Andre Emmerich; the exhibition catalogue from 1981-82, Between Continents/Between Seas: Pre-Columbian Art of Costa Rica by J.Jones, M.Kan and M. Snarkis is a key work on Central American art, while for our upcoming sale of works from the Prigogine Collection, I’d urge readers to look at Mezcala (1992) by Frances Gay and Frances Pratt. Also, a full bibliography is offered in our sales catalogues.’
Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas is a collaborative project between the Getty Research Institute, J. Paul Getty Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art. It runs at the Met until 28 May 2018