By Bob Alvarado
Recent stories of pilferage and smuggling have reached our news desk,
raising questions about the legality of some aspects of the antiques
trade. Fact or rumor regarding such activity, embellished or repudiated,
cannot perpetuate without this publication making editorial commentary,
specifically, regarding stolen religious artifactos and the riveting
repercussions that might ripple through the trade. In every ethnographic
show, from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico, related stories have
gained the attention of collectors and dealers. The atmosphere has become
suspicious and alarming.
Crooks will always exist when disconcerting buyers abound and
unfortunately, some collectors and dealers are enticed to this business by
that knowledge, navigating the underbelly of the trade here and abroad.
Pickers and mules, as others are referred to, snatch up specific
treasures ordered by prospective buyers, who in some cases go so far as to
finance the theft or smuggling of the item. Thankfully, the vast majority
of us are law abiding citizens, yet a tinge of larceny does exists in the
very allure of dealing in antiques. The Marco Polo in us is ever
present, even for those who never venture into a foreign country. The
Chris Columbus in us emerges vicariously, with images of milk and
honey painted by the words of eager sellers, nudging us onward.
Furthermore, the murky language of the laws in Mexico, which are wide open
to ambiguous interpretation, leaves ethical dealers perplexed over what
really is and is not legal. All of us in the trade might ask: At what
level have we participated, and where do we belong?
El antiQuario attempts to answer inquiries by our readers regarding the
many shades of gray in the legality of various objects it is not an easy
task. The respected publication Antiques, in its October 1999 edition,
featured an article which addressed this very problem. Their answers
concerning the legalities were also obscure, go figure.
When it comes to importation of goods from Mexico and other Latin American
countries the interpretation of the rules become muddy because each nation
has varying laws. For example, regarding exportation of santos, the laws
of Mexico simply state: Statuary, not to exceed 60 centimeters, and not
older than 18th century. Canvas signed by particular artists have been
deemed as national treasures, i.e. Villalpando, Cabrera, Correa, etc., and
cannot leave Mexico. Even 20th century artists such as Diego Rivera and J.
C. Orozco have had their works categorized as national treasures and are
prohibited from leaving the country without special permission. Obtaining
that permission is a process that isnt exactly hassle free, considering
the red tape. What it boils down to is that in each and every instance, it
is the purchaser who must decide what is at stake.
El antiQuario suggests to walk the straight line. When buying goods at a
show or a retail outlet use a credit card. Pragmatic buyers should demand
a written receipt and also have the seller write out the selling-point
claims, such as dates, origin of goods and the names of artists, if
available. Red flags should go up if the seller refuses. We understand
that if one finds themselves in the jungle or some other remote location,
the above is often impossible to solicit. Use good judgment.
If you are returning from abroad: Declare! Declare! Declare! Otherwise
your goods can be considered as contraband and you could be accused of
smuggling. Dont fret, such a declaration can be done legitimately and is
not difficult. Revealing specific details of age is not necessary. For
example, one can declare a bulto as an old, wooden statue, or a retablo as
a painting on tin. Revealing marketing or esoteric details to authorities
is not required. A truth sayer doesnt necessarily have to be a confessor.
There is a certain keen savvy at being coy, and we would never suggest to
remove the entrepreneurial spirit or take the fun out of any collectors
business or hobby. Authorities basically want to know what country it came
from, what it is made of and how much you paid (another gray area inherent
to this business). If there are doubts or questions, check with an expert
or get in contact with this publication. We dont claim to have all the
answers but can assist or lead readers in the right direction.
At this time El antiQuario is setting out to investigate and report on
some of the exact definitions, to determine legal interpretations of
Mexican law and US Customs, and to assist on how to abide by them. In
reality, for the vast majority, and by our own experiences, there isnt
all that much to concern yourselves with as long as you stick to the
Finally, regarding the recent robberies, although art theft has existed
since before the pharaohs, these surfacing bugaboos shouldnt have the
wind in their sails to stifle our wonderful trade. Bottom line: for most
dealers, theres no reason we shouldnt continue to prosper, operate our
business and enjoy our lives.
On a lighter note, as we bring you volume 3 with enthusiasm and vigor, we
are pleased to present Lorena Sanchez, of Guadalajara, Jalisco and Sareda
Milosz, 25 year resident of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. These two
very talented associate editors, along with the collaboration of El
antiQuarios new and old constituencies, have helped us put together
another stellar edition. We are sure youll enjoy reading it as much as we
did bringing it to you.