A task for diplomacy: how ancient heritage is recovered when two countries disagree

Moctezuma's plume, in Vienna.
Moctezuma’s plume, in Vienna.LEONHARD FOEGER (Reuters)

Moctezuma’s headdress, a headdress supposedly worn by the last Mexica emperor five centuries ago, is on display inside a sealed glass case in Vienna; Italy preserves three pre-Hispanic codices: the Cospi, the Fiorentino and the Magliabecchiano; At the end of January, the Millon firm raised more than 133,000 dollars in an auction in France that the Mexican government had asked to stop. The plume will not return to the country, at least in the short term, because the museum authorities that preserve it believe that “it is part of the DNA of the Austrians”; Mexico has received facsimile copies of the codices, but the originals remain in Bologna and Florence due to their fragility; the commercialized pieces bulge private collections in spite of the denunciations.

Claims to recover these pieces and others are at the center of the dispute between Mexico and other countries. The recovery of objects has been on the agenda for years, but the interest of the current Administration and the review that is taking place in countries such as France or Germany drive these requests even further. Alejandro Celorio, advisor to the Foreign Ministry and in charge of coordinating the legal strategy for the return of these assets, explains that the first step for them to return is to demonstrate who has rights over them. “That’s where the complexities begin,” he points out, because “an argument from the Mexican State always comes with a response”: “What’s complex and frustrating is that, unlike a vehicle, these pieces don’t have property titles. We say ‘they are all mine’, and abroad they say ‘whoever has it is the rightful owner’.

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An example: the claim of Moctezuma’s headdress. The Austrian government argues that the headdress is in a “too fragile” state and moving it would mean its destruction. “There will be specialists who say that it is not true, that it is not destroyed, but I personally would not want to be responsible for it being destroyed during the transfer,” says Celorio. In any case, before even thinking about moving it, Austria should acknowledge that Mexico owns the headdress. And the issue, then, becomes “very legal.” “Mexican law cannot be imposed [de 1972, que establece que la exportación de estos bienes es un delito]”, Celorio points out.

Replica of Moctezuma's headdress, in the National Museum of Anthropology.
Replica of Moctezuma’s headdress, in the National Museum of Anthropology.Classes (Getty Images)

Although it seems like a stagnant discussion, the legal adviser points out that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is still working on the arguments. Austria has proposed “sharing cultural heritage without having to move it.” But for the Mexican government it is not enough: “If I had an instruction to negotiate with Austria, which I do not have, [la solución] it would be to try to recover it ”, settles the counselor. In three years of Government, and according to the Ministry of Culture, the current Administration has recovered more than 5,000 artifacts. But diplomacy can be a long road, and with some countries and institutions it works better than with others.

In France, the biggest challenge to negotiate is French law itself, which recognizes the possessor of the property as the owner and assumes their good faith. Blanca Jiménez, Mexican ambassador in Paris, sums it up: “Everything that is in their museums is their property.” Jiménez explains that if Mexico were able to demonstrate that a certain piece is war booty, then it would have more opportunities, but “elements are lacking” to build such cases. In any case, Ella Jiménez appreciates the “support” of the Government of France. “The issue is the private sector,” she clarifies.

Auction houses in Paris rely on local legislation every time they put part of the world heritage up for sale. In July, Mexico signed a declaration of intent to “make the illicit trade of Mexican historical and cultural heritage as difficult as possible” and now, in addition to the notice that the embassy makes to UNESCO every time there is an auction, the authorities inform the Central Office for the Fight against the Traffic of Cultural Assets (OCBC, for the acronym in French), a police body that verifies the documentation of the pieces. But still these events are organized and the signatures raise millions of dollars, even when the authenticity of the lots is questioned.

For the ambassador, it is still necessary to go “one step further” and get an investigation into when and how the pieces left the current American territory, which in many cases was through looting. “It’s a crime almost the same as trading weapons, drugs, trafficking people… It’s a highly profitable crime,” says Jiménez.

Pieces auctioned by the firm Christie's in November in Paris.
Pieces auctioned by the firm Christie’s in November in Paris.

With messages like this, the authorities seek to sensitize, above all, those people who have these objects in their homes or intend to buy them. From the embassies, they transmit that “the damage caused by these sales is greater than the profit they generate”, that “it is not a good business” because the objects will eventually become “legal and economic liabilities”, that “terrorist organizations use this trade to finance itself.

It is the strategy that has worked best, according to the diplomats interviewed. Jiménez points to an incipient trend: “We are seeing that the market is moving to another side, where this awareness has not entered, which is in Asia.” The increasingly aggressive campaigns have also gotten owners of heritage objects to return them voluntarily, such as those that returned to Mexico from the United States this Friday: a clay urn, a rock mask, and a book from 1715. “If you lose an asset of this cultural or historical type, not only loses the country, it loses all history”, insists Jiménez.

The situation also helps because the political and social debate on restitution is taking place in different countries. Germany announced that “beginning in 2022” it would return “substantial quantities of the Benin bronzes,” busts and reliefs from the 16th and 17th centuries that were looted by British colonists and sold to various Western countries. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, had already opened the door in 2018 to massively return looted pieces from Africa, whose heritage is mostly outside the continent. In November, the European country finally returned to Benin a batch of 26 artifacts. These first gestures are limited to the African continent, but they set a precedent and make conversation possible in other contexts.

The terms in which these exchanges are proposed are taken care of in detail by Mexican diplomats abroad. There is no talk of “archaeological treasure” to “remove the Indiana Jones notion,” explains the ambassador to Germany, Francisco Quiroga. The value that is recognized to the pieces is historical. In the case of the objects that the historian Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller claimed in Europe to be exhibited in the 2021 commemorations, they speak of a “temporary transfer” and not a “loan”. “They cannot lend you something that is yours,” says the diplomat.

Mexico asked Germany, among others, for the transfer of the Dresden codex, the oldest and best preserved Mayan manuscript, according to UNESCO. Although no agreement was reached on that piece, Quiroga believes that it is “a matter of time.” “We wanted to do [que fuera] an opportunity for awareness and collaboration. We opened dialogues that were fruitful and will give us good results in the future”, she indicates. The ambassador refers to the possibility of strengthening Mexico’s arguments abroad and being legitimized for future talks. The Government must now authorize these artifacts that are temporarily in Mexico to leave the territory again, and that generates a different conversation.

The goods obtained during the tour are displayed in the temporary exhibition The greatness of Mexico. There are almost 900 objects brought from France, Italy, Sweden and the United States, and many others from different Mexican states. There, for example, are five pieces of priestly clothing made of silk, linen and feathers in the 18th century and which are preserved in the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella in Rome. From Italy is all that has been temporarily brought after months of negotiation. No agreement was reached, however, on the codices claimed by Gutiérrez Müller, the Fiorentino, written in Nahuatl, Latin and Spanish, and the Cospi, which reveals the advances in mathematics and astronomy of the Nahuas. Those negotiations are currently “out of the agenda,” says Carlos García de Alba, Mexico’s ambassador to Italy.

Shows 'The greatness of Mexico'.
Shows ‘The greatness of Mexico’.Nayeli Cruz

The diplomat recognizes the European country as “a benchmark” because, unlike other states, Italy works “actively” to recover and restore these assets. Since 2013, it has returned more than 700 pieces to Mexico, according to the ambassador. It is the Arma dei Carabinieri that alerts the Mexican authorities when an object that could be of pre-Hispanic origin is identified. It is a body specialized in these tasks, and that inspires the one that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador intends to create within the National Guard. Afterwards, the National Institute of Anthropology (INAH) must corroborate the origin of the objects and, if it is determined that they are Mexican heritage, it initiates the repatriation process.

If since 2013 there were six rounds of refunds, four are expected this year, says García de Alba. The seizures were made in recent years and are now ready to be returned to the country and cataloged by the INAH, which will incorporate them into the national collections upon arrival in Mexico. The success of these negotiations does not depend on “a silver bullet”, a unique solution, warns the ambassador in Italy. And in each country it happens in a particular way: “They are different histories, legislations, cultures and sensitivities”.

When an immediate restitution is not achieved, there are other steps that are taken and that the Mexican authorities consider important, such as the location or identification of the pieces, since a major challenge that Mexico has is that there is no complete catalog of all the looted heritage. “It’s not laziness,” says Alejandro Celorio, “there are so many and perhaps many came out many years ago.” The legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry does not expect to see them all in Mexico before the six-year term ends: “We want them to return, whatever it takes, but that they return.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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