Mexico reclaims stolen documents of Hernán Cortés discovered at auctions in the U.S.

Mexico has sought the help of the Washington Department of Justice to recover stolen manuscripts of Hernán Cortés discovered at auctions in the US.

Mexico reclaims stolen documents of Hernán Cortés discovered at auctions in the U.S.
Archaeologists discover the 15th century artifact in the Gulf of Mexico area. Image: courtesy of INAH

The Mexican government is seeking to repatriate from the United States at least 10 historical documents of the conquistador Hernán Cortés that, when promoted at auctions in the United States, independent researchers identified as stolen from the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) confirmed Monday that they have sought the help of the Department of Justice in Washington and are already in cooperation with the U.S. Attorney for the District of New York to recover the manuscripts.

The case broke out as a result of a group of historians who found that the Swann Galleries auction house offered last September a Spanish royal order addressed to Cortes and Pedro de Alvarado in 1521, the year of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. The document is one of 10 that, from 2017 to 2020, specialists have identified as "stolen in one way or another" from Mexico's AGN, recounted scholar Michel Robert Oudijk, of the Institute of Philological Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

"For a long time we have been following several cases of auctions here in Mexico and abroad precisely for this reason, of documents that disappear from their original places," he explained. Also participating in the group are academics such as Mexican María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, president of the Alfredo Harp Helú Oaxaca Foundation (Fahho), and Spanish María del Carmen Martínez, a specialist in Hernán Cortés from the University of Valladolid.

Oudijk assured that "there is no doubt" that the documents belong to the Mexican Archive because Martinez has photographs of the originals after decades of research. "We see that in many cases the institutions that contain and handle these documents do not have sufficient security measures to prevent these documents from getting out of there," said the researcher, originally from the Netherlands.

Under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, since December 2018, the Mexican government has intensified its claims to historical artifacts abroad.

Just last week, the Ministry of Culture and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) denounced in the Attorney General's Office (FGR) an auction to be held this week in New York that included "pieces considered archaeological monuments". On February 9, an auction of 30 pieces of pre-Hispanic art from Mexican cultures was held in Paris, which INAH tried to stop.

In addition, Lopez Obrador has sought to bring historical pieces to Mexico that are in Europe to commemorate in 2021 the 500th anniversary of the Conquest, the 200th anniversary of Independence, and the 700th anniversary of the foundation of Tenochtitlan. But researcher Oudijk lamented the "dramatic" budget cuts that cultural institutions have suffered, so this group of historians "does the work that should" be done by INAH or AGN.

"Now with everything that is happening with the commemoration of 1521, we talk about the importance of history, but if history is so important we also have to invest money in protecting it, and protection is about documents," he said. The historian recalled that the sale of documents is legal in Mexico when they come from private collections, but called for reforms that would make it easier for the State to recover heritage that is in the nation's interest.

"Analysis of laboratory-made to the stock of the anchor, indicate that its wood dates from that century and belongs to an endemic oak of the north of Spain", indicated the INAH in a bulletin on the found artifact in waters of the Villa Rica, in the state Mexican from Veracruz. Despite the remarkable finding, experts warn that there is still no evidence to link the anchor with the ships sunk in 1519 by Hernán Cortés.

The finding was made in July 2018 by INAH experts with colleagues from the United States during the beginning of the work of the Underwater Archeology Project in Villa Rica, which aims to locate the vessels of Cortés. The anchor was found at a depth of twelve meters, completely covered by marine sediment. The element, which is in a good state of conservation, measures 2.59 meters long and retains its two arms, 33 centimeters each, and part of its wooden stock.

Cortés arrived on the coast of Villa Rica with a fleet of 11 ships, of which 10 were sunk by order of the conqueror to make it clear to his men that there was no turning back on his expedition.

"The latter (the stock) allowed the specialists to take samples and carry out dating studies to know their temporality, and archaeobotany to investigate their origin," explained the Institute. An examination with a mass spectrometer of the Institute of Physics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has dated the wood "with a probability of 95%" in a time interval between 1417 and 1492; a second test in the United States established the data between 1450 and 1530.

A sample of the anchor wood will be sent to the European research project For Sea Discovery to delve into the wood and corroborate its origin. There is a possibility that in the next exploration season in the area they will deepen the study of the anchor and analyze the possibility of removing it from the sea and stabilizing it to ensure its conservation. It would be sought that the historical object could remain in Villa Rica and become a cultural and tourist attraction of this population.