WARRENTON, Mo. — The National Trust for Historic Preservation put the Picture Cave, located in Warrenton, Missouri, on its annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites in the country.

The Picture Cave is a 43-acre piece of land that was once used as a sacred communication space for indigenous peoples over one thousand years ago.

The land is the site of over 290 prehistoric polychrome paintings inside of a two-cave system. It’s the largest collection of paintings from indigenous people in Missouri. Scholars even say the significance of the land rivals that of Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. The paintings have been dated to approximately 900-1100 CE.

“It was a collective commune of a very significant space and there is only speculation on the number of indigenous peoples that used the space for many many many different reasons, mostly communication,” Selkirk Auctions Executive Director Bryan Laughlin said.

The land was owned by a prominent St. Louis family who primarily used the land for hunting from 1953 to 2021 when it was sold at auction for $2.2 million. Laughlin said the bidder declined to be named.

Carol Diaz-Granados 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.”

The Osage Nation, in a statement, called the sale “truly heartbreaking.”

“Our ancestors lived in this area for 1300 years,” the statement read. “This was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried throughout Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave.”

Diaz-Granados is holding out hope that the new owner will donate it to the Osage Nation.

Below is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s full list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites in the country.

  1. Francisco Q. Sanchez Elementary School in Humåtak, Guam
  2. Camp Naco, Arizona
  3. Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina
  4. Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama
  5. Minidoka National Historic Site in Jerome, Idaho
  6. Picture Cave in Warren County, Missouri
  7. Deborah Chapel in Hartford, Connecticut
  8. The Brooks-Park Home and Studios in East Hampton, New York
  9. Chicano/a/x community murals located throughout Colorado
  10.  Jamestown in Jamestown, Virginia
  11. Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas