Mexico recovers stolen 16th-century manuscripts



Among the recovered documents was a letter written by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and a decree issued by Queen Isabella

The Mexican government—working with Homeland Security Investigations and the US Attorney’s Office in New York—has recovered a number of 16th-century manuscripts believed to have been stolen from an archive in Mexico over a number of years. Speaking in New York where US officials formally handed the over papers, Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, emphasised the importance of the documents which include a letter written by Hernán Cortés, one of the Spanish conquistadors who oversaw the destruction of the Mexica or Aztec Empire and the removal of quantities of treasure from the country.

The Cortés letter is dated 1521 and is believed to have been taken from the National Archives in Mexico City—which has long been plagued by theft and allegations of poor governance. The archive building’s infrastructure has also deteriorated over the years and researchers have warned of the risks posed to the collection due to a lack of funding.

A number of artefacts were also recovered in the operation, which was carried out following a chance discovery by Michel Oujdik and Sebastian van Doesburg, two researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Rodrigo Martinez at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and María del Carmen Martinez from Spain’s University of Valladolid.

When the UNAM researchers discovered the letter for sale through the New York Swann Auction Galleries, they were suspicious and alerted experts at the National Archive, who managed to get the letter withdrawn from a sale last September. This set off an investigation into what the National Archives director Carlos Ruíz (who took up his post in 2018) called a “wholesale pillaging of the National Archive for commercial gain”.

The recovered items are a welcome success for the Mexican government, which has said recovering its looted “national patrimony” is a cultural priority.  This week, it failed to halt a German auction of more than 300 pre-Colombian artefacts, including several from Michoacan and Veracruz.

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