‘Like Auctioning Off the Sistine Chapel’: An Auction House Sold an Osage Cave Containing Important Prehistoric Art for $2.2 Million

This week, a cave in Missouri containing prehistoric illustrations by members of the Osage Nation was auctioned in a single-lot sale for $2 million, or $2.2 million with premium.

Once used for burials and sacred rituals, the historic site—commonly called the Picture Cave—is home to some 290 glyphs more than 1,000 years old. It is considered among the most important examples of rock art in North America.

The tribe, which had previously tried to purchase the landmark, categorized the sale as “truly heartbreaking” in a statement. “Our ancestors lived in this area for 1,300 years,” their message read. “This was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried throughout Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave.”

The lot was consigned by a family who had owned the property since 1953 and primarily used it for hunting. They approached Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers, the St. Louis-based firm responsible for the sale on September 14, after negotiations with the Osage Nation fell through. 

Picture Cave in Missouri. Courtesy of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers.

Picture Cave in Missouri. Courtesy of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers.

Bryan Laughlin, Selkirk’s director, told CNN that the sellers originally had the 43-acre parcel appraised at between $420,000 and $450,000. His company, meanwhile, estimated that it could fetch between $1 million and $3 million at auction. In its listing, the auction house called the cave the “largest collection of Native American polychrome paintings in Missouri.”

“To me, it was just mind-boggling how they wouldn’t be able to realize that the significance and the historical intrinsic value would make it so much greater than just the acreage times a certain number,” Laughlin said. 

The director suggested that the cave would remain untouched, noting that Selkirk vetted potential buyers and that Missouri has in place a statute making it a felony to disturb a human burial site. 

“Regarding time and unforeseen occurrence, I cannot say, but all indications thus far would be that the cave is going to be preserved very well,” he added. 

Details from Picture Cave. Courtesy of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers.

Details from Picture Cave. Courtesy of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers.

Primitive drawings of people, animals, and mythical creatures line the walls of Picture Cave, most made with charred plant material. Carol Diaz-Granados, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis who co-wrote a book on the cave with her husband, told the AP that the detail of the drawings is what sets the site apart from others. “You get stick figures in other rock art sites, or maybe one little feather on the top of the head, or a figure holding a weapon,” she said. “But in Picture Cave you get actual clothing details, headdress details, feathers, weapons. It’s truly amazing.”

Diaz-Granados said auctioning off the landmark is “like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.” She believes it should be returned to the Osage people. “That’s their cave,” she said. “That’s their sacred shrine, and it should go back to them.”

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Restoring a Tradition Trump Skipped, Joe Biden Will Welcome Barack Obama to the White House to Unveil His Old Boss’s Portrait

President Joe Biden is welcoming his former boss, Barack Obama, back to the White House for the unveiling of the former president’s official portrait this fall, according to a report from NBC News.

The unveiling will be a makeup occasion after former President Trump declined to invite Obama for the event, which typically takes place in the East Room of the White House with hundreds of guests in attendance.

For 40 years before Trump discontinued it, the portrait dedication was a bipartisan gesture of goodwill by a new president towards his predecessor. (Trump also skipped Biden’s inauguration, opting to leave Washington early for his Florida estate at Mar-a-Lago.)

The paintings are commissioned by the privately funded White House Historical Association, and are awarded to an artist of the former president’s choosing.

Tourists walk past a portrait of former US Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton during the reopening of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, on May 14, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Creating the portraits can take up to four years, and the works are donated to the White House upon completion.

Customarily, portraits of the two most recent presidents hang on the state floor of the White House near the Grand Foyer, though Trump moved portraits of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to a “less visible” location, according to NBC. Biden has since moved them back.

Donald and Melania Trump are reportedly in discussions with the Historical Association and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), where portraits of other US presidents are on view in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition.

An advisor to Trump told NBC that “our progress is consistent with historical precedent.”

When the NPG reopened after it pandemic-forced closure, a recently acquired photograph of Trump was included in the exhibition. It was taken on June 17, 2019, in the Oval Office, the day before Trump formally announced he would seek reelection.

Meanwhile, portraits of the Obamas by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are now on an 11-month-long, five-venue tour.

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