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posted: 11/17/2013 5:51 AM

A pre-Columbian stirrup pot — or is it?

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  • This stirrup vessel is a form popular with pre-Columbian people mainly located in Peru -- but is it old?

    This stirrup vessel is a form popular with pre-Columbian people mainly located in Peru -- but is it old?
    SHNS photo courtesy Joe Rosson and Helaine Fendelm

By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. Back in the day, my grandfather was a buyer for Wrigley Chewing Gum and he frequently visited South and Central America to buy, well, gum. He brought back from one such trip this pottery vase that stands about 9 inches tall and is 6 inches wide. We always thought it was native art, but that was only a guess. Can you identify this item and suggest whether it belongs in a museum, is collectible or is of little value?

A. First of all, let us say that this is supposed to be a pre-Columbian stirrup pot or vessel probably Peruvian in origin and might have been made by any one of the tribes or societies in the area, including Moche, Chimu, Nazca or Chavin. But it is simply too hard to tell which without have the piece in hand for close study.

The chances of this piece being old and authentic are rather small. The natives who have been robbing the graves of their ancestors to retrieve such artifacts have also been copying what they found and have become very good at deception (unless you happen to be seasoned specialists in this field of scholarship, which we are not and do not pretend to be).

In 1983, the United States accepted the UNESCO Treaty generally known as the "Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property." The accord makes owning authentic pre-Columbian a dicey proposition, and several museums are actually returning all or parts of their collections to the countries of origin. Collectors interested in buying pre-Columbian artifacts should be very careful and make sure the items they are purchasing are legal to own.

Is this piece a fake? One easy way to tell (or get a clue) is that genuine articles are somewhat lighter than fakes, and if a piece seems to be heavy it may very well be a fake. Too, ancient pottery often has a dank smell when wet. Just remember that a real piece of pre-Columbian pottery has not sat on someone's coffee table for the past 1,500 years -- it has been in someone's grave.

Genuine examples of pre-Columbian pottery often (if not always) have little dark specks of manganese in the body because the clays from which ancient Mesoamerican pottery were made were not as refined as the clays of today. Little dark nodules of manganese were left behind and these can be seen by the naked eye.

But beware. These are sometimes painted on the surface of an item with the idea of fooling novice collectors. The piece in today's question certainly looks to be the proper age in the photographs. But it may be too perfect, and some of the surface discoloration may have been applied in modern times.

We are also concerned about the little creature crawling up the handle and onto the neck because it seems to be too small and cramped to be the work of Mesoamerican artists, who, as a general rule, were more bold than subtle.

We, of course, could be wrong, and this should be seen by a specialist who can actually hold it in his or her hands and do an on-site evaluation.

As for value, we think it is relatively modest even if it does turn out to be old and eligible to be owned in this country. We have seen similar pieces retail in the $350-$500 range and some sell at auction for less than $100.

• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.

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