The academics who stopped the auction in New York of a stolen letter from Hernán Cortés


This is the story of a robbery, but also of a recovery. From sheets torn from a dusty archive full of old documents that tell the history of a country. Of institutional and academic negligence that had to become detectives to solve them. In the summer of 2020, the Swann Gallery, a prestigious New York auction house, announced a bid for September 24 of that year: a letter from Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror who led the colonization of Mexico in 1521. A group Mexican academics who closely followed the movements of this type of establishment, in an attempt to preserve the historical heritage, denounced that it was a manuscript stolen from the General Archive of the Nation. A year later, on September 23, 2021, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, Marcelo Ebrard, boasted in his Twitter profile of having recovered the letter and other files, “placed under the custody of our consulate in New York to be transferred to Mexico City”.

It was not the first time that Swann had auctioned such cards. The gallery began offering Cortés documents in 2017 that fetched up to $ 50,000 as a starting price. The bidding quickly raised suspicions: there had been no public sale of the conqueror’s files in three decades. But the 2020 auction was the auction that filled the patience of the academics, who in addition to Swann, monitored the sales of other similar businesses, accused of selling Mexican heritage, such as Bonhams, Christie’s, Sanders or Sotheby’s.

Javier Eduardo Ramírez López, a historian from the Texcoco diocese, was one of the first to sound the alarm in the summer of 2020. He had located the letter Swann was offering. “Javier Eduardo advised us, particularly my friend María del Carmen Martínez Martínez, correspondent member of the Mexican Academy of History, the most important researcher on Cortés today,” explains Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, professor at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and son of José Luis Martínez Rodríguez, one of the greatest experts on the figure of the conqueror. But they weren’t the only ones on the trail of the document.

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“Auctions are always occasions when strange things happen,” says Sebastián van Doesburg, a researcher at the INAH, by phone. —That’s why I usually follow up on them, both within Mexico and in the United States. But there is much more money in the US market than in Mexico, and there is an attraction to moving documents there. Swann, unfortunately, is a very important house in the sale of Mexican heritage. Prints and manuscripts are auctioned every April and September. We were struck by the appearance of several very early letters from Cortés. These letters are not usually sold, it is rare that someone has them, so we consulted with María del Carmen through Rodrigo.

María del Carmen Martínez Martínez: the key figure. Researcher at the University of Valladolid (Spain), specialist in Cortés and an old friend of Martínez Baracs. The academic had been working for years on a compilation of archives of the conqueror, “a continuation of the four volumes of courtly documents compiled by my father,” says Martínez Baracs. For that purpose, Martínez Martínez had spent a couple of seasons, in 2010 and 2014, in the General Archive of the Nation (AGN). And in the summer of 2020 he received a message from across the ocean.

“It was an intense month that August,” recalls a year later the academic by video call. —When Mexican colleagues gave me the information on the auction houses, I was able to verify that those documents had been consulted. I had them all inventoried, so it took me little to check them. Some had been photographed, and thus it was possible to prove that when I carried out the investigation they were there [en el AGN].

Martínez Martínez contrasted his photographs with those that appeared on Swann’s website. In addition, the AGN had in its possession some microfilms taken decades ago from the same archives, which provided the definitive proof. The documents were mostly of a technical and administrative nature, according to the researcher, and “broaden the private and public world of the character.” They belonged to the Hospital de Jesús, a sanatorium that Cortés founded in Mexico City shortly after colonization, whose important written record was recognized as Memory of the World-Mexico by UNESCO in 2018. In 1930 it was transferred to the AGN. “He has very important documents to understand how Cortés and his circle operated. It is an extremely rich branch, but also poorly inventoried, there are no formal catalogs, which is incredible knowing that it has been at the AGN for 90 years ”, Martínez Baracs adds.

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Thanks to Martínez Martínez, in addition to the letter, they were able to identify a total of 10 courtesy documents that had been stolen from the AGN, to which were added another six that were contrasted by the institution itself. In total, at least 16 confirmed files — which could number 116, according to Forbes– were stolen from its warehouse over the years and sold in different auction galleries. “I have no doubt that there were many more”, points out Sebastián van Doesburg, “it is not a petty thief, it is a professional chain, clearly organized and thought out, that knew how to place the documents in different houses at different times so as not to attract attention. . It could be an inside job, from someone with access to the file. If you add up the amounts of money that the person obtained, it is scandalous ”.

One of the Cortés documents that were recovered by Mexican authorities.
One of the Cortés documents that were recovered by Mexican authorities.SWANN

The stoppage of the auction

Investigators reported the finding to the authorities, who managed to stop the auction. A year later, Ebrard’s announcement would arrive, where he explained that the files had been recovered by the New York Attorney General’s office and Homeland Security Investigations, to later be delivered to the Mexican Foreign Ministry through the New York consulate. But the Foreign Secretary did not provide further details, did not give a list of the rescued documents or specified when they will be back on Mexican soil.

The Ministry of Foreign Relations, the General Archive of the Nation and the Mexican consulate in New York have been consulted by EL PAÍS on numerous occasions and through different channels in the last two months, but at the time of publication of this article they have not granted no interview.

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The investigators who managed to stop the auction have repeatedly denounced that the repeated theft of AGN files has become a fundamental problem. “Recovering the documents is fine, but let them be there [en Nueva York] implies there is a problem here [en México]”Sums up van Doesburg. The academic also regrets the lack of state interest to stop this type of activity. “Unfortunately, many of the complaints come from civil society, not from the institutions. They have the obligation to take care of their collections, there should be a team to search the auction houses, it should not be the work of historians, because it is a bit of a detective work. You don’t want to get into the rather gray matter of those markets, you always have to be very careful ”.

On the other hand, there is a problem with auction houses, which do not ensure the origin of the goods they sell, argue the academics. The market in which stolen goods move is opaque, between legal loopholes and gray spaces. Silence and anonymity prevail for both the seller and the buyer. Bidding businesses take advantage of the high demand for archaeological documents, van Doesburg says.

Alexandra Nelson, Swann’s press officer, assured Reuters that all their products are analyzed to verify their origin. “Selling material that we know is stolen through an auction house is one of the stupidest things you can do,” he argued.

“The documents are necessary to try to approach and understand in a rational and critical way the societies that preceded us, to understand how we were doing as we are”, develops Rodríguez Baracs. “Any file that is mutilated remains incomplete. What can be reconstructed from a mutilated document, subtracts part of the information that was part of it, ”explains Martínez Martínez. A history of robberies and appropriations that is repeated over and over again with the Mexican heritage.

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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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