Colonial-Era Papers Stolen From Mexico’s National Archive Return Home

The documents, many of which are directly linked to conquistador Hernán Cortés, were smuggled out of the country and auctioned in the U.S.

Seven people in suits and ties stand in front of a table with antiquities and 16th century documents laid out
The cache of newly returned items includes 15 handwritten papers and a small collection of looted antiquities. Consulado General de México en Nueva York via Facebook

Thanks to a group of eagle-eyed scholars, a trove of stolen colonial-era documents has been returned to Mexico City.

Unidentified thieves smuggled the 16th-century papers out of Mexico’s Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in a “systematic,” multi-year operation, reports Raúl Cortés Fernández for Reuters. Researchers first raised concerns about the possible heist after noticing some of the archive’s documents inexplicably appearing at auction in 2017.

Most of the manuscripts have direct links to Hernán Cortés, leader of the Spanish forces that invaded the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, waged war against the region’s Indigenous peoples and launched the colonization of modern-day Mexico.

American authorities returned the documents in a ceremony held at the Mexican consulate in New York City last Thursday, per a statement posted on Facebook. As Adyr Corral reports for Mexican newspaper Milenio, the cache of stolen goods includes 15 handwritten papers, as well as a small collection of looted antiquities that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office recovered over the course of its investigation.

“This is one of the most important recoveries of documents in the history of Mexico,” said Mexican foreign affairs minister Marcelo Ebrard at the Thursday event, per Milenio (as translated via Google Translate).

The pages were cut from their original binding, smuggled out of the archive and illegally sold through such major auction houses as Christie’s and Bonhams. They garnered tens of thousands of dollars at auction, notes Rosa Vilchis for Noticieros Televisa.

Academics initially raised questions about the auctioned items’ provenance in 2017. The lots—royal decrees, legal records and even a rare letter bearing Cortés’ own signature—looked suspiciously similar to documents that were supposed to be held in the Mexico City archive, as Drazen Jorgic and Cortés reported for Reuters in May.

Among the experts who noticed the discrepancies were philologist Michel Oudijk and historian Sebastián van Doesburg, both from the National Autonomous University of Mexico; María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, a Mexican scholar of colonial history; Rodrigo Martinez Baracs, a historian at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology (INAH); and María del Carmen Martínez of the University of Valladolid in Spain.

The group contacted Mexican authorities in 2018 and 2019 but received little response. Then, the scholars took matters into their own hands, launching an amateur investigation that identified at least ten papers from AGN’s Cortés collections that had been auctioned off in the United States.

Researchers compared images from auction listings to AGN microfilm records and other sources. Martínez even employed photos of manuscripts that she’d taken on research trips to the archive in 2010 and 2014.

We are very worried, not just by this theft, but also about all the other robberies and looting of national heritage.

News of the string of thefts finally made headlines in September 2020, when New York–based Swann Auction Galleries announced plans to sell a 1521 royal order addressed to Cortés and Pedro de Alvarado, who was identified as the mayor of Tenochtitlán, per Mexico News Daily. Historians voiced their concerns and halted the sale of the document, prompting Mexican and U.S. authorities to launch a formal investigation into the fates of the other documents, as Spanish news service Agencia EFE reported in May.

Housed in a gargantuan former prison in Mexico City, the national archive has been plagued by allegations of theft and lax security for years, notes Elizabeth Mistry for the Art Newspaper. Speaking with Lauren Villagran of the El Paso Times last October, Oudijk said, “Any researcher who has been there and reads this story will say, ‘It’s an inside job.’”

Michael Swanton, a linguist at the National Autonomous University, added, “Obviously, the person who was doing this had some idea of what they were looking at. Obviously, the person is part of a network to bring them to New York City, and somebody knew to subdivide them to different auction houses.”

The confirmed thefts are “scandalous,” Porrúa told Reuters in May. “We are very worried, not just by this theft, but also about all the other robberies and looting of national heritage.”

Per the Art Newspaper, current AGN director Carlos Ruíz described the thefts as a “wholesale pillaging of the National Archive for commercial gain.”