Cave With Ancient Native American Drawings Sold at Auction for $2.2M

Osage Nation calls the sale 'heartbreaking'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 15, 2021 3:16 AM CDT
Missouri's 'Picture Cave' Auctioned Off for $2.2M
This undated photo provided by Alan Cressler shows a Missouri cave featuring artwork from the Osage Nation dating more than 1,000 years was sold at auction on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.   (Alan Cressler via AP)

A Missouri cave containing Native American artwork from more than 1,000 years ago was sold at auction Tuesday, 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 the 43 hilly acres that surround it near the town of Warrenton, about 60 miles west of St. Louis, the AP reports. Bryan Laughlin, director of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers, the St. Louis-based firm handling the auction, said the winning bidder declined to be named. A St. Louis family that's owned the land since 1953 has mainly used it for hunting. The Osage Nation, in a statement, called the sale “truly heartbreaking.”

The cave was the site of sacred rituals and burying of the dead. It also has more than 290 prehistoric glyphs, or 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 website. That’s exactly 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."

“Our ancestors lived in this area for 1300 years,” the Osage Nation statement says. “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 various means were used to create the art. Charred botanical material was used to draw. For one depiction of a mythical being, the artist created a white figure by scraping off the brown sandstone. Years ago, analytical chemists from Texas A&M used pigment samples to determine the drawings were at least 1,000 years old. Diaz-Granados is holding out hope that the new owner will donate it to the Osage Nation. “That's their cave,” she said. "That's their sacred shrine, and it should go back to them.”

(Read more Osage tribe stories.)

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