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Osage Nation’s ‘Picture Cave’ in Missouri sold at auction, thwarting plan to preserve ‘our most sacred site’

‘Like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.’ an expert who studied the site west of St. Louis and wrote a book on it says. The auction house says the buyer can’t exploit the cave.

This photo shows a Missouri cave featuring artwork from the Osage Nation that’s more than 1,000 years old. The cave was sold at auction. The art inside “Picture Cave” shows humans, animals and mythical creatures. Experts who have studied the cave were concerned about the auction, but the director of the auction company says protections are in place to prohibit the new buyer from exploiting the cave, including a Missouri law that makes doing so a crime.
This photo shows a Missouri cave featuring artwork from the Osage Nation that’s more than 1,000 years old. The cave was sold at auction. The art inside “Picture Cave” shows humans, animals and mythical creatures. Experts who have studied the cave were concerned about the auction, but the director of the auction company says protections are in place to prohibit the new buyer from exploiting the cave, including a Missouri law that makes doing so a crime.
Alan Cressler via AP

A Missouri cave containing Native American artwork from more than 1,000 years ago has been sold at auction, disappointing leaders of the Osage Nation who hoped to buy the land to “protect and preserve our most sacred site.”

A bidder agreed to pay $2.2 million to private owners for what’s known as “Picture Cave,” along with 43 hilly acres that surround it near the town of Warrenton, about 60 miles west of St. Louis.

Bryan Laughlin, director of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers in St. Louis, said the winning bidder declined to be named. A St. Louis family that owned the land since 1953 used it mostly for hunting.

The cave was the site of sacred rituals and burials. It has more than 290 prehistoric glyphs — hieroglyphic symbols used to represent sounds or meanings — “making it the largest collection of indigenous people’s polychrome paintings in Missouri,” according to the auction house.

That’s why Carol Diaz-Granados opposed the sale. She and her husband James Duncan spent 20 years researching the cave and wrote a book about it. Duncan is a scholar in Osage oral history, and Diaz-Granados is a research associate in the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Auctioning off a sacred American Indian site truly sends the wrong message,” Diaz-Granados said. “It’s like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.”

The Osage Nation called the sale “truly heartbreaking. Our ancestors lived in this area for 1300 years. This was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried throughout Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave.”

The cave features drawings of people, animals, birds and mythical creatures. Diaz-Granados said their intricate details set the cave apart from other sites with ancient drawings.

“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.”

Years ago, analytical chemists from Texas A&M used pigment samples to determine the drawings were at least 1,000 years old.

Laughlin said Missouri law says anyone who “knowingly disturbs, destroys, vandalizes or damages a marked or unmarked human burial site” is committing a felon as is anyone profiting from cultural items obtained from the site.

Diaz-Granados hopes the new owner donates it to the Osage Nation.

“That’s their sacred shrine,” she said. “And it should go back to them.”