Scholarly Sleuths Scuttle Shady Sale of Letter Sent to Hernán Cortés

In September 2020, a trio of scholars based in Mexico and Spain managed to stop the sale of a valuable historical document that had been stolen from the National Archives of Mexico (AGN),  Mexico News Daily  reports. The manuscript in question was a letter written in 1521 to the Spanish conquistador  Hernán Cortés , sent by allies back in the mother country.

The letter alerted Cortés to palace intrigue initiated by his enemies. It warned him to avoid seeing a royal emissary dispatched by the Spanish crown, who planned to strip him of any administrative powers he’d assumed in the lands he’d seized from  the Aztecs.

Portrait of Hernán Cortés. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A Bigger Issue Revealed by the Cortés Letter

Unbeknownst to many, this letter had long been in possession of the AGN. But it suddenly showed up on the ‘for sale’ list at Swann Galleries, a prestigious  antique auction house  located in New York City.

A letter from Cortés to his assistant which was sold for $32,500 in a 2019 auction. ( Swann Auction Galleries )

The researchers had been searching auction house websites in multiple countries, on the lookout for Cortés documents specifically. Between 2017 and 2020, several auction houses began offering documents for sale that related in some way to the famed sixteenth century conqueror of Mexico. This was suspicious, since similar documents had been scarce in years past.

Mexican historian María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, an expert on sixteenth-century Spanish colonial literature, and her partner, Mexico-based Dutch philologist Michel Oudijk, tried to warn antiquities authorities in Mexico that something illegal might be going on. But their efforts to spur the government into action led nowhere.

Growing increasingly frustrated, they decided to investigate the situation on their own. They recruited María del Carmen Martínez, a highly regarded Cortés scholar from Spain, to assist them in their mission.

Martínez owns a large collection of photographs of Spanish colonial documents. She had previously visited the National Archives of Mexico on two occasions, and had taken many pictures during those trips. Carefully checking her collection, she was stunned to discover that she had once taken a picture of the very same Cortés letter that was on the verge of being auctioned off to the highest bidder in New York City.

The main building of the National Archives of Mexico (AGN). (vladimix/ CC BY-SA 2.0 ) The letter to Cortés was stolen from the AGN.

But that wasn’t the only revelation to emerge from her work. Martínez tracked down images of nine other Cortés documents that had been sold by four auction houses since 2017. She found pictures of eight of them among the photographs she’d taken at the AGN.

The scholars quickly realized the magnitude of this discovery. They’d uncovered evidence of not just one theft, but of a series of them that could all be traced back to a single location.

How Does this Happen in the 21st Century?

“We really shouldn’t have situations like this in the 21st century,” a disturbed  Martínez told Reuters , which reported on the findings of the detective-scholars in a May 13 article.

The scholars notified Swann Galleries of their discovery, and the gallery agreed to stop the planned sale of the 1521 letter. They also let officials at the Mexican National Archives know about the criminal activity that had been taking place at their facility.

Later, the AGN conducted a detailed search of their inventory. They were able to confirm that the 1521 letter and the other Cortés documents identified by Martínez had all been stolen from their voluminous collection.

Two of the four galleries involved in the various illicit sales—Swann Galleries and Christie’s of London—denied any wrongdoing. The remaining two auction houses—Bonham’s of London and Nate D. Sanders of Los Angeles—have so far refused comment.

A 1527 letter from the Spanish conquistador to his personal assistant. In 2019 the letter was sold at auction for $37,500. ( Christie’s Auction )

Robert Wittman, a former special agent and founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, was not surprised to hear about the thefts. He places the blame directly on the auction houses. He believes they’re not seriously concerned about preventing illicit artifact trafficking.

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

The Tip of the Iceberg? Unraveling an International Conspiracy

The discovery of this  illicit antiquities trafficking  operation raises an obvious question. Was the illegal activity at the AGN restricted to Hernán Cortés-related items, or have other rare and ancient documents also been removed from the National Archives collection?

According to AGN officials, only about 40 percent of their huge collection has been officially examined and catalogued. Conceivably, hundreds of items could have been removed from that collection without anyone ever realizing they were missing.

“It’s scandalous,” said Grañén, the colonial books scholar. “We are very worried, not just by this theft, but also about all the  other robberies  and looting of national heritage.”

A source inside Mexico’s Foreign Ministry told Reuters that the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and one U.S. District Attorney’s Office in New York State are cooperating with Mexican authorities in an ongoing investigation into these  disturbing thefts.  The AGN is sharing information with law enforcement officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, and will launch its own internal investigation to see if it can uncover the individual or individuals responsible for the theft of the Cortés manuscripts.

“We are not discounting the possibility that the person responsible for the thefts of these documents was a manager, a worker or a researcher,” said AGN legal advisor Marco Palafox.

Firms that handle  sales of valuable antiquities  generally keep their records confidential. This is supposedly to protect the privacy of their clients. A more cynical view might suggest they help their clients hide from scrutiny because they know illicitly obtained items are being bought and sold on their platforms.

Whatever the reason, they won’t be able to keep their secrets much longer. Former FBI agent Wittman says that subpoenas will soon be issued by  law enforcement agencies,  which will force the auction houses to open their books and reveal the names of their clients. This means they’ll be disclosing the identities of both buyers and sellers.

With this information in hand, investigators may be able to trace the  stolen items  back closer to their ultimate source. Whether that leads them directly to the person who was stealing documents from the National Archives in Mexico remains to be seen.

Top image: Portrait of Hernán Cortés.  A stolen letter to Cortés  has been tracked to a New York auction house. Source:  Public domain

By Nathan Falde

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