Mexico wants back stolen Cortés papers auctioned in U.S.

A Hernan Cortes letter, signed "El Marques", to his mines administrator Pedro de Castilleja is seen in Mexico City (REUTERS)

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – In September, a New York auction house had a rare treasure up for sale: a five-centuries-old letter revealing political intrigue involving Hernán Cortés, the famed leader of the Spanish force that colonized what is modern-day Mexico.

Cortés papers seldom come to market. The 1521 document, offered by Swann Galleries, was expected to fetch $20,000 to $30,000. That is, until a plucky group of academics in Mexico and Spain helped thwart the sale.

Searching online catalogues of global auction houses and mining one of the researchers’ personal trove of photos of Spanish colonial documents, they traced its provenance to the National Archive of Mexico (AGN), the nation’s equivalent of the National Archives in Washington. An image of that 1521 letter captured by a Mormon genealogy project would play a supporting role.

What’s more, these amateur detectives unearthed nine additional Cortés-linked papers put on the block from 2017 to 2020 in New York and Los Angeles by auction houses – including the well-known British firms Bonhams and Christie’s – that are now confirmed to be missing from AGN, officials at the Mexico City-based archive told Reuters. They said some of those documents, once bound in weather-beaten books, had been surgically removed as if with a scalpel.

“It’s scandalous,” said one of the gumshoes, María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, a prominent Mexican cultural figure and a scholar of 16th-century Spanish colonial books. “We are very worried, not just by this theft, but also about all the other robberies and looting of national heritage.”

Names of the buyers and sellers of the Cortés documents were never disclosed publicly by the auction houses. Such anonymity is commonplace in an industry whose well-heeled patrons prize secrecy.

Swann Galleries, which handled a half-dozen Cortés papers, denied wrongdoing. London-based Christie’s, which put two out for bid, said it carefully vets the provenance of all items it puts up for auction. Bonhams, another London firm, auctioned one; it declined to comment. Los Angeles auction house Nate D. Sanders, which put one Cortés document on the block, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Cortés flap comes at a time of intensifying scrutiny of the global antiquities trade. Countries including Mexico are watching auction houses for potentially pilfered objects. Others are demanding repatriation of relics displayed in foreign museums.

The researchers’ sleuthing has sparked law enforcement investigations in Mexico as well as in the United States by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Reuters reporting has revealed.

A spokesperson for HSI declined to comment.

The news organization is also the first to reveal that Mexico’s Foreign Ministry has enlisted the help of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in repatriating the 10 missing manuscripts, according to Alejandro Celorio, the ministry’s legal advisor.

“We are already in cooperation with the federal prosecutor in the New York district,” Celorio said.

The DOJ declined to comment.

Separately, Reuters tracked down the Brazilian buyer of one of the allegedly purloined Cortés manuscripts handled by Swann Galleries who said he returned it to the auction house.

Manhattan-based Swan Galleries has emerged as a key player in the unfolding drama. It cancelled its scheduled Sept. 24 auction of the 1521 Cortés letter on Sept. 9, one day after Reuters contacted the firm about the researchers’ allegations.

Swann Galleries said it works diligently to ascertain the provenance of antiquities it auctions. It keeps extensive records and cooperates fully with law enforcement, said Alexandra Nelson, Swann Galleries’ chief marketing officer. “Knowingly moving stolen material through an auction house is just about the silliest thing a person can do,” Nelson said.

Robert Wittman, a former special agent who founded the Art Crime Team at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said big auction houses aren’t doing enough to safeguard the world’s antiquities.

“They are not in the business of recovering stolen property or protecting cultural property,” Wittman said. “They’re in the business of buying and selling.”

Also under scrutiny is the AGN, Latin America’s largest archive. Mexican academics have long warned that the holdings of the cash-strapped institution are vulnerable to decay and theft.

“We are not ruling out any hypothesis,” about how the Cortés papers were stolen, Marco Palafox, legal counsel for the AGN, told Reuters. “We are not discounting the possibility that the person responsible for the thefts of these documents was a manager, a worker or a researcher.”

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