Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Andrew Kluger, the chair of the Museum’s board attributed the pre-Hispanic collection to a gift from Nelson Rockefeller. He was in error. Mr. Rockefeller’s gift represents a major portion of the museum’s Folk Art collection, not the pre-Hispanic collection.
An evaluation of nearly 2,000 artifacts of the Mexican Museum’s pre-Hispanic collection has found that only 85 are “allegedly” of museum quality.
The rest, in short, are period pieces of less significance or fakes.
Or, as an expert concluded, the vast majority of the pre-Hispanic collection’s 1,774 artifacts failed two tests: “authenticity and a high degree of historical, artistic and/or cultural values.”
The findings were published in a June report written for the museum by Dr. Eduardo Perez de Heredia Puente, who has worked with México’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and has extensive experience in the Yucatán. It is the first of several reports that will be done on the museum’s permanent collection of more than 16,000 pieces.
“I was shocked,” said Andrew Kluger, the chairman of the museum’s board.
The problems with the permanent collection does not end there. Kluger estimates that upcoming evaluations may conclude that as much as half of the museum’s permanent collection may be less than “museum quality.”
In addition to the pre-Hispanic work, the Museum’s collection includes 5,000 examples of Popular Art; 2,500 of 20th Century Latin American and Mexican art; 1,500 of Colonial Art and 1,000 of Chicano art, according to its website. All of these will be evaluated.
The June report on the museum’s pre-Hispanic collection found that it contains “a good number of modern workshop ceramics, imitating the archaeological ones…..from bad to good copies, including some good and high-end forgeries.”
The items reviewed in the June report came from gifts made from some 50 different donors, according to the museum.
Of the 85 artifacts that the report qualifies as “allegedly” museum quality, the report recommends that 24 be tested using an analysis technique that provides “an absolute date for the production (the firing event) of the piece…”
Some of the exceptional pieces in the collection are a “Vase of the Four Wind Gods,” and a Mayan carved stone.
The June report is in sharp contrast to Perez de Heredia Puente’s assessment in May of a gift from Berkeley Professor John Casida and his wife Kati. After reviewing their gift of 80 pieces, Perez de Heredia Puente wrote that the collection is “an extraordinary assemblage of Native American works of art…preserved in prime condition..”
“They did a magnificent job of getting top pieces,” Kluger said of the Casidas.
The majority of its pre-Hispanic collection will either be offloaded, used for educational purposes or loaned to smaller museums.
Kluger stressed that there is value in giving permanent loans to smaller museums. Moreover, he said, culling the collection will save money in insurance and storage rates, which he described as “through the roof.”
The museum’s early acquisition strategy was set on accumulating a permanent collection and being a community archive. That has changed.
“Basically the museum was not functioning as an international museum,” he said of the more than four decades since it was founded by Peter Rodriguez. The Mexican Museum began in 1975 at 1855 Folsom St. and then moved in 1982 to Fort Mason.
“It was accepting everything,” Kluger said.
That strategy served a different time, but in 2012, the museum became an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. That designation, as well as substantiating and building the quality of its permanent collection, will enable the Mexican Museum to loan and borrow work from world class museums, he said.
Sari Bermúdez, a former Minister of Culture for México who is overseeing the evaluations of the Mexican Museum’s collection, said that even having 160 or so pieces from the pre-Hispanic era that are considered museum quality, “is a very good amount and quite valuable.”
The ongoing evaluation and documentation of its collection, Kluger said, will also raise the museum’s stature.
“If you have the Smithsonian designation and want to make it a destination museum and to borrow and lend with other museums like the national museums of Mexico,” the value of the permanent collection has to be established, he said.
Already, the museum is evaluating gifts such as the one from the Casidas before agreeing to make them part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Recently, Marta Turok Wallace, a Mexican anthropologist and expert on Popular Art, assessed a gift from Andy and Trudy Goldberg of Connecticut and concluded that “almost all” of the nearly 800 pieces were of “museum quality,” according to Bermúdez.
Turok Wallace will look next at the museum’s permanent collection of Popular Art and expert evaluations of the museum’s other collections will follow, Bermúdez said.
All are part of the Museum’s move to a permanent home and its shift to becoming a world-class museum.
For decades the museum struggled to raise the money for a permanent home, but in the next few years it will move to a permanent home on the first four floors of a luxury condo tower at 701 Mission St. on Jessie Square. Already, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and St. Patrick’s church are on that square.