Cave Featuring Native American Wall Art Is Sold to Anonymous Bidder

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The cave, which sold for $2.2 million in St. Louis on Tuesday, is considered a sacred site by members of the Osage Nation. A tribal leader called the sale “heartbreaking.”

Some of the wall art in the Missouri cave sold at auction this week is over 1,000 years old.
Credit...Alan Cressler, via Associated Press

Isabella Grullón Paz

Sept. 16, 2021, 1:00 p.m. ET

A Missouri cave considered to be the most important rock art site in North America was sold at auction on Tuesday to a private buyer, devastating leaders of the Osage Nation tribe who had hoped to buy the cave to “protect and preserve our most sacred site.”

The buyer, who remained anonymous, agreed to purchase what is known to historians as the Picture Cave, along with 43 acres of hilly surrounding land, for $2.2 million, outbidding tribal representatives who were present at the auction.

“Picture Cave is our most sacred site,” Andrea A. Hunter, director and tribal historic preservation officer for the Osage Nation, said in a statement. “It is a burial site, and it is a sacred ritual site. Picture Cave is invaluable and irreplaceable.”

The cave is a “subterranean masterpiece,” according to Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers, the St. Louis-based firm handling the auction. It contains approximately 290 glyphs, some around 1,000 years old, the firm said, making it the largest collection of Native American polychrome paintings in Missouri. The land it sits on, which was used by the previous owners as hunting grounds, is about 50 miles west of St. Louis.

“It was really heartbreaking going through this process,” Dr. Hunter said in an interview on Wednesday. “We’ve been trying to work with the landowners for many months. It was just unfortunate that they decided to take this to auction and try to get as much money for it as they could.”

Bryan Laughlin, executive director at Selkirk, said that all the bidders had been vetted to participate in the auction. No conditions were set to be able to purchase the site, but a Missouri statute threatening a felony charge to anyone who “knowingly disturbs, destroys, vandalizes or damages a marked or unmarked human burial site” was read aloud before the bidding began, he said.

The previous owners were concerned with the protection and preservation of the cave, and they wanted to ensure that the next “steward” was someone with the financial means to establish further research of the site, Mr. Laughlin said. He added that although he could not share the buyer’s identity, he knew that the person was a “cave conservator” who owned a vast collection of caves and actively worked to preserve them.

According to Dr. Hunter, the family that owned the land since 1953 had been in negotiations with the tribe in the months before the auction and originally asked for $1 million — “quite a bit of money” for the Osage Nation, even after it received additional support from the Conservation Fund and Native Land Conservancy.

For the Osage Nation, the Picture Cave — whose array of glyphs constitutes one of the largest and most detailed depictions of Native American life of its kind in the United States — is a place of genesis. It is where Osage ancestors performed sacred rituals to make and memorialize crucial decisions for the tribe. It is also a sacred burial ground, Dr. Hunter said.

“Osage elders have called the cave the womb of the universe,” James R. Duncan, an archaeologist and anthropologist who studies the Osage and Native American ethnography, said on Wednesday.

He and his wife, Carol Diaz-Granados, a research associate in the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis, spent 20 years researching the cave and its art through an agreement with the previous owners. They said they were devastated by the sale and believed the land should be returned to the Osage Nation.

Ms. Diaz-Granados said the cave contained some of the most detailed depictions of ancient Native American clothing, weaponry, symbolic accouterments, headdresses and ceremonies available anywhere. “There are things here that are not in any other site,” she said.

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Credit...Alan Cressler, via Associated Press

Mr. Laughlin said there had been “some concern” about the future of the cave, adding that people had suggested that the land be donated.

“While I do not disagree with that, how do you do that?” he said. “We even looked into it, with the family.” He said after communicating with experts, it was ultimately decided that “the only way to establish the value of the property was to vet bidders, and allow the person that cared about it the most to be the next stewards of it.

According to Dr. Hunter, the process of donating land to Native American tribes is fairly straightforward. “All they would have had to do is ask,” she said. “They would have even gotten a tax write-off.”

Dr. Hunter, who has never seen the site herself, says she hopes to find out who the new owners are, and to work with them to protect the site and ensure that Osage Nation members have access to it.

“We just have to move forward; we’re slowly getting our land back,” Dr. Hunter said. “We weren’t successful with the Picture Cave, but we will not forget. We will not give up.”

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