In Focus

The History (Provenance) of the Olmec Seated ruler in ritual pose [1983.50]

The following two accounts document the possible history (provenance) of the Olmec Seated ruler in ritual pose. The first account is written by Carolyn Tate, former Assistant Curator of Pre-Columbian Art of the Dallas Museum of Art.

During a recent trip to Cuernavaca, Franz Feuchtwanger (Rio Nasas 204) described the entire history of the discovery of the Seated Man. He said that a German Nazi (F. Haswald) unearthed it in 1953 in Puebla and brought it to him for an opinion. FF demurred, saying that Preclassic clay, not stone, was his specialty. The Nazi then asked Miguel Covarrubias to comment on the piece. Covarrubias wanted the piece to stay in Mexico but could not afford the $10,000 that the looter was asking. So he said that the piece was problematical.

The Nazi turned to Everett Rassiga, then an American Airlines pilot, to take the piece out of the country to New York, where it was shown to Alistair Bradley Martin, an Olmec collector who later placed his collection in the Brooklyn Museum. Martin asked Gordon Eckholm for an opinion, then showed it to Matthew Stirling, who had excavated Olmec site La Venta. Stirling liked it but suggested that Covarrubias look at it. Rassiga took the piece back to Mexico, and Covarrubias gave a similar response. The sale of the piece was "killed" for a while.

Later the piece was sold to Jay Leff, for a price I don't know, from Leff to a group of dealers, and from them to Peter Wray. We arranged its purchased from him in 1983.

Along with the Seated Man were found two plain jade celts and one wonderful one in gray jade. The latter has two heads, one as seen from the top and one in profile. The body of this monster is composed of two squarish forms with circles in the middle. FF gave me his original photos of both objects, which are now in this file.

This story is from the same source as Peter David (P.D.) Joralemon's, which also appears in this file, thus it is difficult to corroborate, but likely true.

CT, August 11, 1988

Excerpt from

Carolyn E. Tate, PhD, DMA unpublished material, 1988.

The second account is a letter from Olmec scholar Peter David (P.D.) Joralemon to John Lunsford, former Senior Curator at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Dear John:

After almost a year, I've finally gotten a moment to write to you about the history of the beautiful Olmec serpentine seated figure your museum purchased from the Wray Collection. The story is based primarily on the memories of Franz Feuchtwanger who watched the piece move through the hands of its various owners.

Feuchtwanger recalls that the figure was discovered in San Martin Texmelucan, Puebla (near Cacaxtla) in 1952-1953. A German-Mexican dealer named Haswald had paid off a local taxi driver to keep him informed of any Pre-Columbian finds made in that area. From the taxi driver informant Haswald learned that a ditchdigger had discovered a group of Olmec jade and serpentine pieces in the course of his excavations. Included in the find were the Dallas serpentine figure, the Dumbarton Oaks jade atlatl, two plain jade celts, and the jade celt carved into a mythological monster once in the Leff Collection and now belonging to William B. O'Boyle. Haswald bought the pieces from the ditchdigger and brought them to Feuchtwanger for authentication. Haswald asked Feuchtwanger to show the pieces to Miguel Covarrubias for his opinion also. Covarrubias strongly disliked Haswald, whom he called the "Nazi." He wanted the serpentine figure desperately and asked Feuchtwanger to tell Haswald that it was a forgery. Feuchtwanger refused Covarrubias' request and gave the piece back to Haswald with his approval.

Haswald later decided to sell the figure and knowing that A. B. Martin in New York was a collector of fine Olmec stone pieces, he decided to present the sculpture to Mr. Martin. He persuaded Everett Rassiga, then a young airline pilot, to bring the figure to New York and show it to Mr. Martin. Martin was enthusiastic about the sculpture and agreed to buy it for $10,000, provided that Dr. Gordon Ekholm at the American Museum of Natural History would authenticate it. Ekholm approved the piece, but asked Rassiga to show it to Matthew Stirling at the Smithsonian. Although Stirling knew Olmec monumental sculpture very well, he thought it would be best if the figure was shown to Miguel Covarrubias in Mexico. The sculpture went back to Haswald in Mexico and he took it directly to Covarrubias for his opinion. According to Feuchtwanger, Covarrubias told Haswald, "No puedo decir nada [I can not say anything]." The sale to Martin was thereby killed.

From the original find, Wolfgang Paalen had purchased the jade monster celt. He had tried to trade Haswald for the serpentine figure, but his proposal was refused. Paalen eventually convinced a friend to purchase the piece and then trade it to him for a group of supposedly Medieval lead figures found in the Seine from Paalen's collection. Feuchtwanger knew the Paalen lead figures and thought them suspicious.

In due course Paalen sold the Olmec seated serpentine figure to Everett Rassiga. Rassiga supposedly took the piece back to Miguel Covarrubias and got him to write an authentication letter. He then sold the figure, the Covarrubias authentication, and the jade monster celt to Jay C. Leff. Leff owned the piece for about 20 years, but finally sold it to a consortium of dealers which included Judith Small Nash, Wayne Heathcott, and James Economos. The dealers in turn sold the figure and a number of other former Leff pieces to Peter G. Wray.

The basic details of the story have been confirmed by both Feuchtwanger and Rassiga. It is remarkable that one Olmec object could have passed through the hands of almost every major character in the early history of Olmec archeology and Olmec art collecting.

I hope you will add this information to your files on the Olmec figure. Included here is a xerox copy of a page from Miguel Covarrubias' notebook in which he illustrated the piece. I suspect that Jay Leff still has the Covarrubias authentication letter.

I hope all is well with you.

All the best,

David Joralemon

January 29, 1985

Excerpt from

Peter David (P.D.) Joralemon, DMA unpublished material, 1985.