11 | NOV | 2019
The unstoppable looting of Mexico’s cultural heritage
A stone kneeling figure of Aztec water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, one of pre-Columbian artefacts, is presented to the press at Drouot auction house in Paris, France - Photo: Benoit Tessier/REUTERS

The unstoppable looting of Mexico’s cultural heritage

Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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Known worldwide by its artistic treasures, Mexico continues to suffer the looting of its cultural heritage despite the national and international laws on the matter

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Known worldwide by its artistic treasures, Mexico continues to suffer the looting of its cultural heritage despite the national and international laws on the matter, due to a lack of proper oversight, corruption, and indifference of other governments.

As the recent auction of a major Pre-Columbian art collection in Paris showed, bilateral and multilateral treaties are not enough to prevent this practice when particular economic interests are involved, considering that France and Mexico have a Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and both countries are parties of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970.


Mexico's heritage was sold by French auction house

In Mexico, people actively loot archeological zones and steal the pieces
Mexico's heritage was sold by French auction houseMexico's heritage was sold by French auction house

On September 18, French auction house Millon denied accusations by the Mexican government that the sale of at least 95 of the 120 pieces in the auction was illegal, obtaining EUR €1.2 million for the collection that included sculptures, masks, and religious artifacts from before 1000 B.C. up to the eighteenth century A.D.


French auctioneer rejects Mexico’s request to halt pre-Columbian artifacts sale

Despite Mexico’s efforts to recover over 100 pre-Columbian artifacts from its cultural heritage, and its call to the French government to take action in the case, auction house Millon proceeded with the sale amassing EUR €1.2 million
French auctioneer rejects Mexico’s request to halt pre-Columbian artifacts saleFrench auctioneer rejects Mexico’s request to halt pre-Columbian artifacts sale

Millon President Alexandre Millon said that the FrenchartistsManichak and Jean Aurance listed as the owners of the artifacts, satisfied all the legal criteria to justify their ownership of the collection, which they amassed since 1963.



Una publicación compartida por @arts_premiers el

Even worse, he argued that the Mexican government should use this auction to say ‘look at this sale, it’s one like these we need’ in an effort to stop other auctions which might not take the same precautions,” adding that its complaint wasridiculous.”

It is not our duty to judge the history or legitimacy of the claims, nor the moral in general, beyond the prism of a strictly legal frame,” Millon stressed.

Last year, after receiving a special report that he commissioned, French President Emmanuel Macron became the first Western leader to initiate a comprehensive review of artworks looted in colonial times and promised to return 26 pieces to Benin.

In a speech at the Uagadugu University in 2017, he said he could not accept “that great part of the cultural heritage of several African countries was in France,” stressing that “there are historical explanations for this yet there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification.”

However, France’s Ambassador to Mexico, Anne Grillo, declared that Millon’s auction was aprivate event.”

From time to time, such a kind of “private eventsspark the debate over whether Western collectors and museums should return objects to their countries of origin.

Unfortunately, collectors and museums often argue that there are no proper conditions to ensure the adequate care of the artworks, resorting to justifications bordering in neocolonialism and disdain towards other peoples.

Take the words of Hartmut Dorgerloh, director of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum museum, for instance, regarding the claim of restitution from countries of origin: “How far back will you go? Until Roman times? Because many items in Rome were robbed somewhere in Greece or in ancient Egypt.”

Babylonian tablets

For his part, Hartwig Fischer director of the British Museum affirmed that while the institution was “open to cooperation” with countries seeking to reclaim artifacts, “the collections have to be preserved as a whole” (last month, the British Museum returned to Iraq a collection of 156 Babylonian inscribed tablets looted after the 2003 allied invasion and smuggled through the United Arab Emirates).

Dorgerloh has a point, nevertheless, highlighting that the history of the looting and appropriation of cultural objects is as old as civilization.

The Roman statesman, orator, lawyer, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero prosecuted the magistrate Gaius Verres for looting Sicily; Ibn Haldun (1332-1406), one of the forerunners of modern historiography, sociology, and economics, expressed his disappointment towards people who carried illicit excavations in the Arab world.

In the case of today’s Mexico, the United States, Spain, Germany, and Italy are the main international destinations of archeological vestiges and historical monuments stolen by national and transnational criminal organizations, according to the Attorney General Office (FGR).

Last April, the FBI gave back Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) two pieces of Teotihuacan origin, a culture that settled in the center of the country during the Mesoamerican Classic period.


U.S. returns two Teotihuacan archeological pieces to Mexico

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has just returned two archeological pieces to Mexico
U.S. returns two Teotihuacan archeological pieces to MexicoU.S. returns two Teotihuacan archeological pieces to Mexico

One month later, Italy returned nearly 600 artworks stolen from religious temples seized in Milan; the lot is already exhibited at the National Museum of Cultures in Mexico City.

In 2018, after a legal process of almost ten years in German courts, Mexico recovered two Olmec wooden busts of over 3,000 years of antiquity, originally from the archeological site ofEl Manatí” in Veracruz.


German court orders art dealer to return Olmec figures to Mexico

A witness testified Leonardo Patterson told him the figures had been taken by a grave robber from the archaeological dig in El Manati, Mexico, a sacred site of the Olmec people.
German court orders art dealer to return Olmec figures to MexicoGerman court orders art dealer to return Olmec figures to Mexico

The Olmec artworks were confiscated in 2008 from the Costa Rican trafficker Leonardo Patterson by the Criminal Investigation Office of the German state of Bavaria, for which Mexico started the corresponding legal actions to achieve its repatriation.


Artifacts from the Patterson collection return to Mexico

After a long trial, Mexico managed to recover two authentic Olmec heads illegally removed from El Manatí archeological site
Artifacts from the Patterson collection return to MexicoArtifacts from the Patterson collection return to Mexico

In contrast, negotiations between Mexico and Austria have been fruitless in the last decades to repatriate the emblematic Penacho de Moctezuma, the headdress of the last Aztec emperor, Moctezuma.


Fun facts about Moctezuma’s headdress

Historically, Mexico has tried to bring Moctezuma’s headdress back but due to its fragile state it would be impossible
Fun facts about Moctezuma’s headdressFun facts about Moctezuma’s headdress

The exact origin of the headdress made of gleaming green feathers held together by rows of golden beads is disputed, yet one version says Moctezuma gave it to conqueror Hernan Cortez in the sixteenth century.

By the twists and turns of history, it ended up in Vienna’s Ethnology Museum since the nineteenth century, along with liturgical artifacts dedicated to the gods Quetzalcóatl and Ehecatl.

Mexico and Austria discussed in 2002 the implementation of a historical-ethnological report and a biological assessment on the piece, as well as its restitution to Mexico in order to restore it.

However, the European country finally decided that it was impossibleto return the quetzalapanecáyotl or quetzal feathers headdress due to the risk of vibration and collapse during the transfer.

The Mexican government expects to reopen talks with Austria, this time with the aim of repatriate the headdress for its exhibition next year as part of the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, remarked EL UNIVERSAL this month.

Mexico passed a law in 1972 prohibiting the export of cultural objects. Over 40% of archeological sites and historical monuments in the country have been victims of looting, INAH reported.

Official figures from the institution detailed in 2016 that 90% of stolen cultural objects, including archeological pieces, liturgical artifacts, and religious art, are never recovered.


Religious art is in danger

Casa Morton was involved in a scuffle with Mexican prosecutors, after comparing the origin of some pieces of religious art they had under consignment through ArtLoss
Religious art is in dangerReligious art is in danger

Between 2003 and 2016, INAH listed 4,757 stolen historical or archeological objects. Only 67 were recovered by the authorities, who have deployed less than 900 experts on custodial duties for nearly 60,000 archeological sites across the country.

In addition, INAH filed 21 complaints to the Attorney General Office against the illegal sale or auction of archeological vestiges on the internet and social media in the last five years.

In some cases, inhabitants of poor rural communities find or steal pieces and decide to sell them to earn extra income. The middlemen who buy the artworks then offer the goods to private collectors or art traders.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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