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Mexico Recovers Looted 16th-Century Manuscripts Belonging To National Archives

A joint operation led by the Mexican government has recovered several 16th-century manuscripts reportedly stolen from the National Archives in Mexico.

The manuscripts in question are historical documents of importance, including a letter by Hernán Cortés. Cortés was a Spanish conquistador who played an important role in the defeat of the Aztec Empire, as well as the plundering of the region by Spanish colonizers. The joint operation also included US Attorney’s Office and the Homeland Security Investigations. In a press conference, Marcelo Ebrard (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Mexico) notified that all of the manuscripts in question have been recovered by their office.

National Archives, Mexico

Last year, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) researchers came across some letters up for auction at the Swann Auction Galleries in New York. Suspicions of their provenance lead to a joint investigation headed by teams from UNAM, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and the Univesity of Valladolid in Spain. The investigation revealed multiple instances of thefts from the National Archives, poor leadership, and deteriorating infrastructure that was putting the existing artifacts at risk. After the investigation findings were released,  Carlos Ruíz (Director, National Archives) admitted that the institute had experienced a “wholesale pillaging” for some time.

The National Archives is a UNESCO world heritage site. Over the years, many documents and artifacts that originally belonged in the institution have appeared for sale in various parts of the world. Letters by Cortés are the most frequent of these items, with a 1538 letter sold at Swann Galleries for $32,500 in 2017.

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Recently, the Mexican government has spearheaded a campaign towards recovering items of national historical importance from various parts of the world – with some hits and misses. This month, the government succeeded in canceling the auction of 17 artifacts in Rome but failed to stop the auction of more than 300 artifacts by Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger.