A collection of important 16th-century manuscripts illegally taken from Mexico’s National Archive (AGN) in what may have been a systematic looting scheme were repatriated at a ceremony at the Mexican Consulate in New York last week following a joint operation by the Mexican government, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and Homeland Security Investigations. The rare papers, which began cropping up at New York auction houses in 2017, included historical letters and decrees relating to Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who violently seized Tenochtitlan (in modern-day Mexico City) from the Aztecs 500 years ago. A small group of archaeological artifacts located during the investigation was also returned to the Mexican Consulate, where the manuscripts and objects alike will be safeguarded until their transfer to Mexico City.
While the ceremonial return was a decidedly official affair, it was so-called “amateur sleuths” who first ascertained that something was amiss. The sleuths in question were academics affiliated with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Michel Oujdik and Sebastian van Doesburg), Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (Rodrigo Martinez Baracs), and University of Valladolid in Spain (María del Carmen Martínez), as well as independent scholar María Isabel Grañén Porrúa.
From 2017 to 2020, auction houses including Swann Galleries, Christie’s, and Bonhams sold colonial-era papers linked to Cortés, the likes of which hadn’t been sold publicly at auction in decades. The researchers, noting the aberration, began comparing the images published in auction catalogues to the photos that Martínez, a Cortés expert, had taken of documents in the AGN archives; they found a match. With the aid of the team at AGN and microfilm recordings made by a Mormon genealogy group in 1993, at least 10 stolen documents were ultimately identified.
Though AGN, a UNESCO heritage site located in a former prison, has a series of security measures in place, the underfunded institution has struggled with theft in recent years. Some of the papers seemed to have been sliced neatly from the old books in the “Hospital de Jesús” section of the archive where they were housed. After reaching out to the Mexican government directly without a satisfactory response, the research sleuths announced their findings to the public in September 2020, just prior to Swann’s planned sale of a royal decree regarding Cortés and Tenochtitlán mayor Pedro de Alvarado from 1521 — the year of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
In light of the provenance concerns voiced by the researchers, Swann pulled the document from the sale. The Mexican government went on to reach out to New York’s Attorney General and the Department of Justice, formally seeking the repatriation of the papers that had been identified as stolen. Now, one year after the canceled sale and media attention that catalyzed the official investigation, the manuscripts are returning home.
At the repatriation ceremony last week, Nitin Savur, the Chief Assistant District Attorney for Manhattan’s District Attorney’s Office, presented the artifacts to Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Marcelo Ebrard. In his opening statement, Savur, who called the manuscripts “priceless,” thanked the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and the Mexican Authorities for their work on the investigation, and Bonhams and Swann for their cooperation.
“These landmark cultural heritage items, which showcase the evolution of the Spanish state in Latin America and the roots of Mexican national identity, are heading home where they will be studied and treasured for generations to come,” Savur said.
The art world must acknowledge that stolen artifacts are not just collectible property, but evidence of cultural crimes committed around the world. These relics must be treated with caution and care, and collectors must be willing to conduct due diligence to ensure that an item has not been unlawfully acquired… There are still many more long-lost and stolen relics out there, and I encourage individuals to help us identify and recover them by reporting items of questionable origin to our Office and our partners in law enforcement.
While Mexico has successfully secured the return of the historic Cortés papers, the country’s cultural heritage lovers are also smarting from a fresh disappointment. Last week, despite a coalition of Latin American countries that urged the cancellation of the German auction, Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger proceeded with a sale of pre-Colombian artifacts, including 74 objects identified by the Mexican Secretary of Culture as important pieces of national patrimony.
Correction 10/13/21 1:25pm: An earlier version of this article misstated one of the parties involved in the investigation. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, not the US District Attorney’s Office in New York, participated.