The Ultimate (Man) Cave Comes to Auction
Written by Amelia Jeffers / Photos Courtesy Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers
In a remote area of eastern Missouri, roughly 50 miles outside of the bustling urban center of Saint Louis, prairies meet the Ozark plateau, and a mystical plat of land richly packed with natural resources conceals a well-known subterranean masterpiece that has come to be known as Picture Cave. Housing what some scholars believe to be the greatest assemblage of indigenous American polychrome paintings ever discovered in the ancient cultural area known as Meso-America, the two-cave system was once an important ritual site for early Mississippian culture. Today it functions as a vital ecosystem for one of the densest populations of the endangered Indiana gray bat. Over a millennia ago, native tribes, especially the Osage, roamed and controlled vast swaths of land from what is now known as the Ohio River Valley to Kansas, including the property where Picture Cave is situated. These early settlers utilized caves for various reasons, the most obvious being the opportunity for shelter and protection. Caves were also mined for powerful organic resources, including gypsum crystals and epsomite, used in trade and for medicinal purposes. What sets Picture Cave apart from almost any other is the extraordinarily well-preserved and comprehensive collection of pictographs and iconography. The images' significance is comparable to that of major ancient cities like Cahokia and Chaco Canyon, which once existed directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis and in northwest New Mexico, respectively.
Since the research began in 1990, several selfless individuals, institutional grants, foundational funding, Osage members, and the landowners have made it possible to link documented facts with artistic interpretation. For archeologists, Picture Cave represents a vast spiritual convention in the recesses of the Earth that early regional civilizations used for sacred rituals, rites of passage, vision quests, and burials. Scholarly research dates the images to approximately 900-1100 CE. They are extensively documented in the 20-chapter fully-illustrated book, Picture Cave: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Mississippian Cosmos, published in 2015 by the University of Texas Press. Several field experts, archeologists, Native American tribe members, and artists comprise the Picture Cave Interdisciplinary Project to accomplish this wonderful resource guide to understanding Picture Cave and its preservation. These experts include such renowned names as Patty Jo Watson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and Dr. Jan Simek from the University of Tennessee. As part of ongoing research in Picture Cave, Dr. Simek has compiled and compared geochemical analyses of prehistoric pigment, employed AMS radiocarbon dating and spatial order of iconography. The findings have been published several times in American Antiquity, the professional journal published by Cambridge University Press for the Society for American Archaeology.
On an August or September date to be announced, Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers of St. Louis will offer this invaluable piece of history at auction to the highest bidder on behalf of its current owners, the Busch Family of Missouri. The cave's breathtaking iconography rests at the pinnacle of land teeming with natural springs, rolling hills, and wonderful views that only accentuate the magnitude of one of America's greatest archaeological finds. All 43 encompassing acres of real estate are included in the property auction, which is estimated to sell for $1,000,000-3,000,000 USD. For more information, visit selkirkauctions.com. sl Amelia Jeffers is an internationally recognized art and antiques auctioneer, appraiser, and adviser to top collectors, dealers, and institutions around the country. Amelia is also the Editor-in-Chief of Sophisticated Living Columbus and can be reached at ameliajeffers.com.