Historic Hernán Cortés paper stolen in Mexico is up for sale in the U.S.

The document from 1521 was stolen from Mexico's General Archive

Historic Hernán Cortés paper stolen in Mexico is up for sale in the U.S.
The looting of Mexico's cultural heritage seems to be unstoppable - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 10/09/2020 17:17 Antonio Díaz Mexico City Actualizada 12:32

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A document from 1521 about Hernán Cortés was illegal taken from Mexico’s General Archive (AGN) and was going to be auctioned by Swann Galleries in New York on September 24, so researchers warned the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and the AGN, which have already filed complaints to Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office.

The manuscript was part of the Jesus Hospital Fund 1520-1925 that gathers the most ancient archives guarded by the AGN.

The stolen document was part of docket 271 exp. 13, and was classified as “Request that, about the provisions brought by Cristóbal de Tapia, was done by Hernando Cortés, general captain and highest justice in New Spain, Pedro de Alvarado, Bernardino Vázquez de Tapia, and Cristóbal Corral, in front of Hernán Sánchez de Aguilar, public scribe and of the council of the Segura de la Frontera villa, Coyoacán, December 12, 1521.”

This manuscript, that mentions Pedro de Alvarado as ordinary mayor of the Tenotchtitlán town hall, was part of the auction “Printed & Manuscript Americana,” organized by Swann Auction Galleries, based in New York.

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It was on its website where the group of researchers comprised of Sebastián van Doesburg, Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, María del Carmen Martínez Martínez, and Michel Robert Oudijk saw the document.

In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, Michel Robert Oudijk, from the Philological Research Institute, explained that, for a couple of years now, they have seen Mexican cultural heritage being auctioned both in national territory and abroad, and that it called their attention that, once again, documents from the Jesus Hospital Fund were being sold.

That archive is comprised by Hernán Cortés’s manuscripts, a character that has been widely studied by María del Carmen Martínez Martínez, from the University of Valladolid.

The Cortés expert took a picture in 2010 to the “Request,” so there was no doubt that it was the document that belonged to the Jesus Hospital Fund.

“Leaving the AGN with a document is almost impossible; it must have been someone who can get in and out without being checked, someone from the Archive,” Michel Robert Oudijk, a researcher from the Philological Research Institute said. Then, according to him, Martínez Martínez joined the others’ efforts, “we said we had to do something because this has gone too far. We have only had contact with the INAH because it is the authority that must act. At the Institute, they told us they were going to file a complaint and try to recover the documents.”


Michel Robert Oudijk asserts that, as a researcher and an AGN user, it is almost impossible to get out of there with a document.

“The Archive controls everything you take. There are police officers who register your information and verify your computer in case you have any documents. In addition to the police officer, the Archive staff monitors researchers. That is, leaving the AGN with a document is almost impossible; this tells us it must have been someone who can get in and out without being checked; whoever can do it is someone from the Archive,” he said.

The philologist stresses that it is important to preserve the manuscript in its context “because it is part of a legacy that only makes sense as a whole.”

Yesterday’s afternoon, the “Request” was not available on Swan Galleries’ website, but for Oudijk, that action does not solve the problem: “The auction house must inform who offered it those documents and if that person was not the one who substracted the document, they must say where they got it and thus follow the thread until finding the one who did.”

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Legal actions
Marco Palafox, legal director of the AGN, and the INAH’s communication area informed that each institution has filed a complaint at Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office in order to recover the 1521 document.

“We’re speaking of an illegal subtraction from the AGN. The complaint was presented on Friday. I think the Foreign Affairs Ministry already knows,” said Palafox.

For its part, the INAH said it filed the complaint “against those who are responsible for the auction scheduled for September 24 at the Swann Galleries auction house located in New York that includes historical documents that, according to the opinion of this Institute’s experts, are considered Historical Monuments, according to what is established by the Federal Law on Artistic and Historical Monument and Archeological Sites.”

The INAH did not specify when it filed the complaint nor the number of Historical Monuments that are part of the auction comprised of 378 lots; however, it said that it cannot provide further information since the investigation file is open.

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Complaint against Morton auction house
Marco Palafox said that although the Morton auction house held the auction of lots that were part of Mexico’s documentary heritage on Tuesday, they will carry on with the complaint filed at the FGR.

From the auction, the AGN claimed 75 lots after reviewing the catalog.

“What was presented in the complaint was not a categorical statement but that those documents are probably Mexico’s Documentary Heritage,” as explained by Palafox.

He added it was done as a measure to start a process and that although the auction was not halted, the AGN will carry on with the complaint against those who are responsible for the sale and purchase of historical documents from Mexico’s Independence.

The AGN’s complaint was filed hours before the auction, however, Palafox mentioned that it was not done previously because they knew about it on Monday, when the researchers warned them through letters. Although a letter written by Miguel Hidalgo was removed from the auction, a document signed by José María Liceaga, José María Morelos y Pavón, and José María Cos was sold. EL UNIVERSAL asked Morton for its stance on the matter for has received no response.