Amateur detectives have traced the stolen Cortés papers to auction in the United States. Mexico wants them back
In September, a New York auction house put up for sale a rare treasure: a five-century-old letter revealing a political intrigue involving Hernán Cortés, the famous leader of the Spanish force who colonized what is modern-day Mexico. .
Cortés papers rarely hit the market. Document 1521, donated by Swann Galleries, was to fetch $ 20,000 to $ 30,000. That is, until a group of courageous academics in Mexico and Spain helped thwart the sale.
By researching the online catalogs of global auction houses and tapping into one of the personal treasures of Spanish colonial document photo seekers, they traced its provenance to the National Archives of Mexico (AGN), the national equivalent from the Washington National Archives. An image of this 1521 letter captured by a Mormon genealogy project would play a supporting role.
Additionally, these amateur sleuths unearthed nine other Cortés-related newspapers put on the block from 2017 to 2020 in New York and Los Angeles by auction houses – including famous British firms Bonhams and Christie’s – which are now confirmed absent from AGN, Mexico City-based archives officials told Reuters. They said some of the documents, when bound in weather-beaten books, were surgically removed like with a scalpel.
“It’s outrageous,” said one of the gumshoes, María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, a prominent Mexican cultural figure and specialist in 16th-century Spanish colonial books. “We are very worried, not only by this theft, but also by all the other thefts and looting of national heritage.”
The names of the buyers and sellers of the Cortés documents have never been made public by the auction houses. Such anonymity is common in an industry where well-heeled bosses appreciate secrecy.
Swann Galleries, who has dealt with half a dozen Cortés newspapers, has denied the wrongdoing. London-based Christie’s, which has auctioned two, said it carefully verifies the provenance of all items it puts up for auction. Bonhams, another London company, auctioned one; he declined to comment. Los Angeles auction house Nate D. Sanders, who put a Cortés document on the block, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Cortés strand comes at a time when control of the global antiques trade is intensifying. Countries, including Mexico, are monitoring auction houses for potentially stolen items. Others are calling for the repatriation of relics exhibited in foreign museums.
The researchers’ research sparked police investigations in Mexico as well as in the United States by the US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a Reuters report revealed.
A spokesperson for HSI declined to comment.
The news organization is also the first to reveal that Mexico’s foreign ministry appealed to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to repatriate the 10 missing manuscripts, according to Alejandro Celorio, the ministry’s legal adviser.
“We are already cooperating with the federal district attorney for the New York City district,” Celorio said.
The DOJ declined to comment.
Separately, Reuters tracked down the Brazilian buyer of one of the allegedly stolen Cortés manuscripts handled by Swann Galleries, who said they returned it to the auction house.
Manhattan-based Swan Galleries has become a key player in the unfolding drama. It canceled its scheduled September 24 auction of the Cortés 1521 letter on September 9, a day after Reuters contacted the company about the researchers’ claims.
Swann Galleries said she was working diligently to determine the provenance of the antiques she was auctioning. He keeps many records and fully cooperates with law enforcement, said Alexandra Nelson, Marketing Director of Swann Galleries. “Knowingly moving stolen material from an auction house is just about the dumbest thing a person can do,” Nelson said.
Robert Wittman, a former special agent who founded the Art Crime Team at the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said the big auction houses were not doing enough to protect the world’s antiques.
“Their mission is not to recover stolen property or protect cultural property,” Wittman said. “They are in the business of buying and selling.”
The AGN, Latin America’s largest archive, is also under scrutiny. Mexican academics have long warned that the cash-strapped institution’s holdings are vulnerable to decay and theft.
“We are not ruling out any hypothesis,” Marco Palafox, AGN legal adviser, told Reuters. “We do not rule out the possibility that the person responsible for the theft of these documents is a manager, worker or researcher.”
Key to uncovering Cortés’ alleged burglaries was a small group of academics based in Mexico. Among them were Grañén, researcher in Spanish colonial books, and Michel Oudijk, Dutch philologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico. They also recruited María del Carmen Martínez, a renowned Cortés researcher at the University of Valladolid in Spain.
They said their suspicions were first aroused when a handful of letters signed Cortés suddenly appeared at auction in 2017 after three decades without a public sale.
The mini-boom began in April of the same year at the Swann Galleries, which touted a 1538 letter from Cortés to its property manager as the first such document sold publicly since 1984. “Letters Cortés are quite rare on the market. “said the auction house. his website.
The document brought in $ 32,500, according to the website. The buyer’s name has not been released. But in 2018, the letter was on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. The institution said it did not own the letter and was part of an exhibition based on the private collection of manuscripts of Brazilian art historian Pedro Corrêa do Lago.
Reuters contacted Corrêa do Lago last month to inquire about the document.
“I returned the letter, acquired in good faith, to Swann Galleries,” Corrêa do Lago said in an email. He declined to comment further on what he called a “very rare and unfortunate event”.
Swann Galleries declined to comment on Corrêa do Lago’s remarks.
Bonhams, Christie’s and Nate D. Sanders also auctioned one Cortés paper each in 2017, according to academics and information on the Bonhams and Christie’s websites.
Nate D. Sanders did not respond to requests for comment. Bonhams declined requests for comment.
Christie’s said he was devoting “considerable resources to researching the provenance and authenticity” of items sold at auction and “making no comment on ongoing investigations.”
Researchers said they alerted Mexican antiquities authorities in 2018 and 2019 to their suspicions as new Cortés manuscripts continued to appear at auction, including four in 2019. When two more surfaced in 2020, without any government action. , academics have launched their own investigation. around the middle of the year.
One of the group members contacted Martínez, the Spanish researcher, for help. Not only was Martínez a leading expert on Cortés, but she had taken thousands of photographs of AGN manuscripts documenting her colonial administration during two trips to Mexico City in 2010 and 2014.
Academics quickly compiled a list of nine documents auctioned since 2017. A tenth was to be sold by Swann Galleries on September 24, 2020: a 1521 missive to Cortés from some allies begging him to avoid a crown emissary Spanish intended to strip him of his powers.
It sounded familiar to Martínez. Looking at her photos, she found a match. The document posted on the Swann Galleries website was identical to the one she had photographed at AGN years earlier – down to the pen cursive and a small triangle-shaped piece of parchment missing from the left margin.
In all, Martínez had photographed eight of the 10 manuscripts allegedly extracted from the National Archives of Mexico.
“We really shouldn’t have such situations in the 21st century,” Martínez told Reuters.
The researchers made their concerns public in early September. Swann Galleries canceled its sale on September 24 following requests from Reuters.
Palafox, the archives legal adviser, said AGN did not contact the US auction house to stop the sale because it could not quickly establish – beyond the photos of Martínez – that the 1521 manuscript and others were, in fact, absent from his collection.
AGN hosts hundreds of thousands of documents, but only about 40% have been cataloged, Palafox said. “The remaining 60%, we don’t know what’s out there,” he says.
For help, archives staff turned to microfilm images recorded at AGN in 1993 by the Genealogical Society of Utah, a branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints. Days. The nonprofit, now known as FamilySearch, has photographed records around the world to help Mormons and others regain their ancestry.
In this microfilm, Palafox said, AGN staff found images of nine of the 10 manuscripts up for auction; a written description was found of 10. From there, AGN employees determined where these papers should have gone in its stacks. All were missing, Palafox said, some severely cut off from their colonial ties.
In October, Palafox said it set up a video call with U.S. investigators. He posted images of the Cortés documents from auction house websites alongside those from the 1993 microfilms and photos of researcher Martínez to show the similarities.
“It was enough to get their attention,” Palafox said.
A senior source from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry told Reuters that the US Department of Homeland Security, the US State Department and one of the US Federal Attorney’s offices in New York State are working to retrieve the documents . The State Department said it couldn’t comment on specific cases, but said the government was committed to tackling the theft and trafficking of cultural heritage. Other US officials declined to comment.
Palafox said Mexican federal prosecutors have also launched an investigation. Mexico’s attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Wittman, the former FBI agent, said U.S. investigators would likely assign auction houses to identify sellers and shippers who handled the transport of the documents. The strategy, he said, is to work up the chain until they reach the suspected thieves in Mexico.
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