Once at Mia: Fooled by Chac Mool

He seems so innocent, even naive, though there is a good explanation for this. Mia acquired Chac Mool in 1947 from a respected art dealer, believing he was a masterpiece of ancient mesoamerican sculpture, in the manner of other Chac Mool sculptures found in the Chichen Itza ruins in Mexico.  He became a prominent fixture at the museum and traveled widely—through Europe, it should be said, not Central America.


Chac Mool now reclines in museum storage.

Only in the 1970s was his true nature revealed: He was a fake, and not even a good one. The spoiler was the museum’s first curator of what was then called the primitive art department. No one else on staff, over several decades, had reason to be suspicious. To an expert, however, it was obvious.

Molly Huber, the assistant curator of the renamed Department of African, Oceanic, and Native American Art, included the sculpture in a 2010 exhibition called “In Pursuit of a Masterpiece,” as an instructive counter-example. “When I first saw this sculpture in storage many years ago, it seemed almost laughably bad,” she said at the time, “and now it’s hard to believe so many were taken in by it for so long.”

When this photo was taken by a Minneapolis Tribune photographer in December 1949, and run in the newspaper on January 8, 1950, Chac Mool was still very much in good standing—or reclining. His companion—”Mrs. A.B. Overstreet…a real airline hostess,” as the caption described her—was promoting the museum’s upcoming “cruise” for Minneapolis schoolchildren, in which she would pose as their airline stewardess-guide. Mexico must have been one of the stops.

Mrs. Overstreet was real enough, though her identity changed several times as well. Born Katherine Mordaunt in 1919, she went by Kitty. She married three times—Overstreet was the middle man—and died, just last year, as Kitty Laird. She was in fact briefly a stewardess for Northwest Airlines during World War II, and her affection for exotic places was genuine. She lived in Honolulu and, after 1964, in La Quinta, California, near Palm Springs. She was a board member of the Friends of the Institute and the Junior League, which sponsored the children’s cruise.

Her earrings, by all accounts, are also real and remain in Mia’s collection. For that matter, so does Chac Mool—as a cautionary tale, a bemusing story, his medium literally listed as “Fakes and Forgeries.”

Shortly after his unmasking, a respected poet who had grown up in Minneapolis wrote about the incident in his poem called Father and the Minneapolis Chacmool. Can it be? The Minneapolis Chacmool, unveiled, is fake. That eyes-right corker I’d adored since childhood, leering at the Chinese tomb guardians staring through the sun / In the next gallery back at him: the label notes / He has been “widely exhibited here and abroad” yet now / They know: not some recarving merely of the face / Or prosthetic limb to double for one broken off / One high noon of bloodlust revelry in elder Mexico / But the entire sculpture, made for market, skull to toe: An old con man craning his head over his shoulder.