Friday, June 10, 2011

Yours For a Price

I don't know about you but, while I accept the right of private dealers to make a living, I find natural history auction catalogs deeply depressing. Consider, for example, the catalog for Heritage Auctions June 11, 2011 sale, which is taking place in Dallas, Texas. I would particularly like to draw your attention to Lot #49053, a slice from the Williamette Meteorite. The Williamette, a 15 ton iron/nickel monster from Oregon, is one of the flagship specimens of the American Museum of Natural History. It is also a sacred object for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. This led to various requests for repatriation in the past, culminating in a landmark agreement between the AMNH and the Grand Ronde that allows tribal members to conduct a private ceremony around the meteorite once a year. It also stipulates that ownership of the meteorite will be transferred to Grand Ronde should the Museum cease display it.

So far, so good. But by now you might be wondering what a 30lb chunk of this sacred object is doing sat in an auction house in Dallas. If you want to know the full history, take a look at the auction catalog and this 2007 article from the New York Times. You can draw your own conclusions from them. But what does it say about the private market in natural history that one of the major selling points for this object is the Museum's recognition that the act of sampling is so sacriligious to the Grand Ronde that it should no longer be allowed? And that the Robb Report lists Tomanowos, representative of the Sky People to the Clackamas, as one of the "21 Ultimate Gifts" for 2011?

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