Legitimate Collection or Looted Culture? Taíno artefact sale at Christie's Paris causes controversy

Legitimate Collection or Looted Culture?  Taíno artefact sale at Christie's Paris causes controversy

by Nick Hendry

Smokers of Cuban cigars are probably more aware of the existence of the Taíno people than many others.  It was they who greeted Columbus when he landed in Caribbean, who shared with him their sacred leaves, and they who gave us words which now are revered in cigar culture – words like Cohiba, Behike and Cuaba.  Even the name Cuba is said to derive from the Taíno cubao – “where fertile land is abundant”.  References abound throughout the cigar world, through both names and imagery, to these ancient indigenous people who first recognised the beauty of smoked tobacco.

There is, of course, a great deal more to the culture of the Taíno people than merely smoking tobacco.  The word itself is a fairly broad term, used since the 19th century to refer to the many Arawak-speaking people who had been native to the Antilles islands of the Caribbean prior to colonization by the Spanish.  Their music and art can still be found on the islands today, including Cuba, and their influence on modern life stretches far beyond the references recognised by Habanos lovers.

On the 10th of November 2021 a sale took place in Paris which featured a substantial amount of Taíno artefacts, alongside some Mayan and Inca pieces, dating from between 1000 – 1500 AD.  Just over €3,000,000 was generated by the sale, for which most of the Taíno pieces had come from the Fiore Arts Collection.  Most were decorative or ceremonial items, hewn from bone or shell and carved with patterns which represented the ancestors of those who wore or used them.  Each item had previously been on long-term loan at various reputable American galleries and museums, presented as the few surviving fragments of lost and ancient civilizations.

Rare Taíno ceremonial spatulas

A pair of rare ceremonial Taino spatulas.  Image, and main image, from Christie's

This sale was seen by some as a success, a chance to enjoy the works of a people driven to extinction by colonization around 450 years ago and spread awareness of their history around the world.  The Taíno were officially declared extinct by Spanish census-takers just after 1565, with only 200 natives remaining on the island of Hispaniola.  Census records from 1802 state, with no equivocacy, that there were no indigenous inhabitants left in the Caribbean.  All that remains, then, as testament to their time on earth are this handful of their sacred objects, to be displayed in museums as relics of an ancient time, now shrouded in mystery.

This assertion falls down, though, simply because the Taíno do still exist.  Accounts are rife throughout the history of the Caribbean, telling of Native communities retreating to areas of the islands far removed from the colonists, of inter-marriage between Taíno and European peoples and of Taíno being re-classified first as Spanish, then African, having been forced to work as slaves.  Though their numbers may have been diminished and their cultures and beliefs suppressed, they were not exterminated.  Taíno people lived alongside escaped slaves in the mountainous regions to the interior of most of the Antilles islands, some continuing to fight against the invaders, and their descendants proudly identify as Taíno today.

Incredibly rare Taíno pectoral jewellery, almost perfectly preserved

Incredibly rare Taíno pectoral jewellery, almost perfectly preserved.  Image from Christie's

Some of these descendants have reacted angrily to news of the sale of their cultural relics at Christie’s, and to claims made in supporting material (since removed by the auction house) that the Taíno were long extinct.  Almost 50,000 people (at time of writing) had signed a petition calling for the sale’s cancellation, on the grounds that these items should be returned to the islands on which they were created, so the descendants of their creators can study and honour them.  Protests were arranged by Taíno representatives in New York at both Christie’s branch there and the French Consulate General in the city.  The Mexican Embassy to France wrote to Christie’s Paris and the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs to protest the sale being held.  These efforts were in vain; Christie’s responded to enquiries by the New York Times by saying: “In the case of the upcoming sale… 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.”

A Modern Taíno celebration in Puerto Rico

A Taíno ceremony in modern-day Puerto Rico.  Image from Smithsonian.

Studies have shown there are many people whose ancestry can be traced back to the indigenous Caribbean people.  The modern ‘Taíno Movement’ grows in numbers and complexity each year, with indigenous people of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Cuba and many more beginning to take back their history, refute claims of their extermination and embrace their culture.  Far from being wiped off the face of the planet, they are here to stay, to share their ways with the rest of us, and to honour those who came before them.

The Pre-Columbian Art & Taíno Masterworks from the Fiore Arts Collection sale has now come and gone.  There is little-to-no chance these particular items will be returned to the Caribbean islands from where they were taken any time soon.  There is, however, a growing army of passionate and driven Taíno people who will fight to ensure all future movement of indigenous Caribbean artefacts is done with consideration for their heritage.

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