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Sotheby's presents rare 17th century Mexican 'biombo' folding screen in online sale
The monumental, dual-sided work depicts both the Spanish Conquest of Tenochtitlán & bird’s-eye view of the newly-formed Mexico City. Estimated to sell for $3/5 million. Courtesy Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s announced the sale of a rare 17th-century Biombo in a dedicated online-only sale, BIOMBO DE LA CONQUISTA DE MÉXICO Y VISTA DE LA CIUDAD DE MÉXICO, which is open for bidding from today, 26 September through 11 October 2019. The greatest work of its kind remaining in private hands, the monumental folding screen is estimated to sell for $3/5 million.

Anna Di Stasi, Director of Sotheby’s Latin American Art Department, commented: “We are privileged to present this Mexican national treasure for sale this season. Emerging from a distinguished private collection, this is the type of historic and powerful work of art that we are honored to handle once in a lifetime.”

Comprised of ten individual panels and measuring over 6 feet high by 18 feet long, the present work belongs to a specific group of biombos executed in the second half of the 17th century to assert the distinct identity and history of the criollos (American-born Spanish citizens) in New Spain. The dual-sided screen depicts two vastly different yet related scenes. On one side is a richly detailed, violent and dynamic rendering of the conquest of Tenochtitlán (present day Mexico City), drawn primarily from the True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo – a well-known firsthand account of Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. On the opposite side, a stunning bird’s-eye view of the new city unfolds, emphasizing the dignity and nobility of the Americas under Spanish rule, and contrasting the violent image of the conquest with a vision of peace and order in the new, faithful colonial city.

Both scenes are foundational to the identity of Mexico within New Spain. The scenes of conquest contribute to the criollos’ understanding of themselves as a distinct nation founded in mixture and exchange with the diverse people inhabiting New Spain in the 17th century: from indigenous Mexicans; to Asian immigrants; and free and enslaved Africans. The majestic and modern new city illustrated on the biombo, with its diverse cultural and historic landmarks, is still recognizable in Mexico City today.

The present work is related to various other biombos depicting the same theme, with outstanding examples residing in important institutions such as the Museo Franz Mayer and the Museo Nacional de Historia in Mexico City.

Among the most sought-after and expensive luxury items in colonial Mexico, biombos derive from Japanese painted screens, known as byobu, that arrived in Mexico City by or before 1598 with the Manila Galleon – a trade ship that traveled annually between the coastal markets of the Philippines, China and Japan, and the port of Acapulco in New Spain. The vessel transported screens, porcelain, ivory, silk, spices, pearls, and lacquer furniture to be sold in Mexico City to the growing elite class of criollos. While biombos were lavish and decorative works of art, they also served a range of practical purposes in colonial homes, which often were not divided into separate rooms.

On the first side of the biombo, La conquista is rendered in exceptional detail. The story of the conquest begins in the upper right corner, where the artist has depicted Hernán Cortés meeting the leader of the Aztec empire, Moctezuma, in the avenue of Iztapalapa. Here, Moctezuma is carried on a resplendent throne, surrounded by Aztec nobles. In the opposite direction, he is met by Cortés and his entourage of soldiers and clergy.

Portraits of key Spanish and Aztec figures are distributed throughout, including multiple representations of both Moctezuma and Cortés, several historical kings and emperors from various periods, and the enormous Aztec army. Dressed in striped-and-feathered warrior’s dresses, wielding macuáhuitls, bows and arrows and shields, the army faces-off against the Spanish, who ride across the composition on horseback, carrying firearms. Images of Moctezuma are depicted across the scene – first on his famed elaborate throne, then in his famous last moments on the balcony before being stoned to death. Across the ten panels, key scenes from the conquest unfold in a vibrant, swirling narrative: from the arrival of Cortés’ ships at the coast of Veracruz; to the key battles of the Noche Triste; the attack on the Aztecs’ main temple of worship (Templo Mayor); and the eventual assassination of Moctezuma.

On the second side, the viewer is presented with an engrossing view of Mexico City from a bird’s-eye perspective, based on an original 1628 map of the city by Juan Gómez Trasmonte, now held in the collection of the University of Texas, Austin.

As on the conquest side, a key is depicted in the lower left corner of the city view, detailing the names of 71 landmarks, many of which remain to this day: the Plaza Mayor, the Catedral de la Asunción de María de México (Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral), and the Palacio de los Virreyes, known today as the Palacio Nacional. Other recognizable sites include the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the aristocratic Paseo de la Alameda, the aqueduct of Chapultepec and many public fountains.

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