Several 16th-century manuscripts believed to have been taken from the National Archives in Mexico City have been recovered via a joint operation by the Mexican government, Homeland Security Investigations, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York. The archive contains a number of historically important documents, including a letter written by Hernán Cortés, one of the Spanish conquistadors responsible for the destruction of the Aztec Empire and the plundering of many of the civilization’s treasures.
In a press conference in New York, Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stressed the importance of recovering the entirety of the artifacts looted from the National Archives, which is a world heritage site designated by UNESCO. Over the years, the National Archives have suffered from theft and allegations of poor leadership, and a lack of federal funding has resulted in its building’s general state of disrepair, causing its fragile contents to be at risk of deterioration.
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The investigation was initiated by staff at researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and Spain’s University of Valladolid, following a discovery by the UNAM researchers of several letters for sale at last year through New York’s Swann Auction Galleries. Suspicious of their provenance, the team contacted experts at the National Archives.
“This is theft,” Oudjik told El Paso Times.“We have photographic evidence that these documents that were sold were in the national archive—there is no doubt about that. The export of the documents from Mexico was illegal.”
Letters and papers signed by Cortés have appeared for sale at New York auction houses in the past few years with increasing frequency. A letter signed by the conquistador in 1538 sold for $32,500 at Swann in New York in April 2017. Two months later, an undated letter with his signature sold for the same price at Christie’s. A third manuscript sold that fall at Bonhams for $8,750.
After an investigation, National Archives director Carlos Ruíz said in a statement that the institution had experienced a “wholesale pillaging.”
This recovery of the manuscripts comes amid a strong effort by the Mexican government to stop the international trafficking of national heritage objects, with mixed results. Earlier this month, Mexican authorities succeeded in canceling an auction of 17 Mexican artifacts scheduled to appear at the Rome-based Casa Bertolami Fine Arts, but failed to halt a sale of a group of pre-Columbian artifacts in Germany. Diplomats from seven Latin American countries held a joint press conference calling for the withdrawal of the objects, which had been deemed “national patrimony” belonging to the Mexican people. The Munich-based dealer Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger proceeded with the sale of more than 300 artifacts 0n September 21.