Ancient Costa Rica for sale

Denver-Art-Museum-LibeskindThe kids are still on Christmas break and are starting to show definite signs of cabin fever. To stave off a domestic implosion, we took a trip up to the Denver Art Museum yesterday. The DAM recently opened a spectacular addition designed by Daniel Libeskind, the architect chosen to rebuild the World Trade Center site. But I had an ulterior motive. I’d recently read about the DAMs 16,000-piece assemblage of pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art, including one of the world’s largest collections of Costa Rican artifacts, nearly 2,000 items, donated to the museum by Denver businessman, Frederick Mayer, and his wife. I wanted to check it out.

We’re planning a trip to Costa Rica. Although not much is known about pre-Columbian Costa Rica in comparison to the high cultures of Mexico and South America, recent excavations have uncovered numerous artifacts, including jade carvings. Jade is green and pretty and shiny, perfect for an art lover of my caliber, so I wanted to see it for myself. Call it a bit of research before hitting the craft markets in Sarchi!

Sure enough, Eric and I lost ourselves in a huge room filled with thousands of artifacts. Stone, ceramic, textiles, gold and, oh yes, jade. After an hour or so, we’d barely made a dent in the pre-Columbian collection. Vowing a subsequent visit to the Spanish Colonial galleries, we left to collect the kids before their art experience became Night-mare at the Museum.

As always, looking at ancient artifacts leads me into lofty reverie of past worlds and bare-chested warriors. But this time I couldn’t help but wonder about Jan and Frederick Mayer as well. Certainly amazement and appreciation for their commitment to art and to philanthropy. But really, how on earth had one couple managed to collect this much art from a small Central American country? And why aren’t many of the beautiful pieces residing in Costa Rica, teaching and providing inspiration to Costa Ricans? Especially because Costa Rican pre-Columbian history is not nearly as well-documented as that of its neighbors.

Costa Rica has taken significant measures to protect their natural environment from exploitation. Nearly 20% of the land is set aside for preserves, parks or refuges of some sort. But after my trip to the Denver Art Museum, I’m thinking that perhaps Costa Rica should endeavor to protect other national treasures, especially art created by the hands of largely unknown ancestors, from passionate and well-meaning American oilmen.

Jade museum Costa RicaI will visit the museums in San Jose and let you know how they measure up against the breathtaking Denver Art Museum, with its encyclopedic collection of pre-Columbian Costa Rican artifacts–and hopefully return with a few shiny jade replicas of my own!

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