Around five months ago, a box containing a dozen small, centuries-old sculptures was rediscovered in the storage facilities of New Mexico’s Albuquerque Museum, where it had been sitting for 15 years. The box’s label designated the relics as “pre-Columbian”—also known as pre-Hispanic, the term refers to the period before Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492.
“Immediately, alarm bells started going off in our heads,” Andrew Rodgers, president and CEO of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation, which raises funds for the museum, tells Terry Tang of the Associated Press (AP).
Subsequent investigations traced the murky acquisition of the objects, which experts believe were made in modern-day Mexico between 300 and 600 B.C.E. During a ceremony this week, the foundation returned the artifacts to the local consulate of Mexico; the sculptures will ultimately be placed in the care of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.
Among the items in the box were bowls associated with tomb burials, Olmec greenstone sculptures and a figurine from Zacatecas, a city that sits near “extensive” pre-Hispanic ruins, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. After the items resurfaced at the Albuquerque Museum, officials began digging into their provenance, suspecting that they may have been sold under questionable circumstances.
Rodgers’ assistant found an appraisal form dating to the 2007 acquisition of the objects, which had been gifted to the museum by a donor. Then, Rodgers tracked down the dealer, an elderly woman living in New York. She still had notecards documenting the 1985 sale of the artifacts to the donor, telling the museum that the sculptures were either “purchased on a roadside in Mexico or from dealers in New England.”
“I don’t think anybody had malintent,” Rodgers tells the AP. “I just think there was not much clarity or much transparency in that sort of a practice 30, 40, 50 years ago.”
Once the relics were authenticated by experts at the University of New Mexico and Emory University in Atlanta, museum officials contacted the Mexican consulate to begin the process of repatriation.
“Heritage assets such as these belong in Mexico, where they can be properly preserved, studied and displayed,” says Rodgers in a statement quoted by Artnet’s Taylor Dafoe.
@GobiernoMX recibe 12 piezas arqueológicas de origen mexicano de la @AbqMuseumFdnhttps://t.co/oTpnG0uwbM— REVISTA BOCETOS (@revistabocetos) July 28, 2022
Al desconocer la procedencia de estos bienes, el Museo de Albuquerque @abqmuseum decidió devolverlos.
#MiPatrimonioNoseVende @alefrausto @INAHmx @cultura_mx pic.twitter.com/LcUXD7JRng
In recent years, the cultural sphere has witnessed a worldwide push to repatriate cultural heritage objects that were removed from their countries of origin under troubling circumstances. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron sent a jolt through the museum world when he advocated for the return of artifacts taken from African countries “without consent” during the colonial era. France’s restitution plan has been bogged down by political wrangling, but other initiatives are underway.
The Smithsonian Board of Regents, for example, recently voted to voted to deaccession 29 Benin Bronzes housed at the National Museum of African Art. In Canada, Indigenous groups have called for the Vatican to return art and artifacts sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries.
Officials in Mexico have also been making concerted efforts to pursue the repatriation of heritage objects, reported ARTnews’ Shanti Escalante-De Mattei earlier this year. The social media movement #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (#MyHeritageIsNotForSale), for instance, seeks to discourage the buying and selling of artifacts that are important to the country’s national identity. An official Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage was established to monitor the illegal market. Last year, during a ceremony that saw Italy return three archaeological artifacts to Mexico, officials stressed that recovering cultural relics is a top priority.
“Mexico’s heritage is not a luxury item for a collector,” Culture Secretary Alejandra Frausto Guerrero said at the time. “It is not something that should decorate a house. It is part of our roots. [These pieces] are witnesses to what we are as a country.”
Rodgers tells the AP that upon the discovery of the box of forgotten sculptures, “a couple people” suggested the foundation keep the relics because “they may not be worth a ton” and “‘Mexico doesn’t really care about this kind of stuff.” But this is simply not the case.
“We appreciate and recognize actions taken by the Albuquerque Museum Foundation to voluntarily return these archaeological pieces back to the Mexican nation,” says Norma Ang Sánchez, consul of México, in a statement. “They are important elements of memory and identity for our native communities, and we are pleased they will be recovered.”