The recent discovery of more than a dozen ancient artifacts in a package in a Tijuana post office is a reminder of how looters continue to steal pieces of Mexico’s heritage.
An anonymous tip led federal investigators to a package in the border city containing 14 pre-Hispanic pieces, Mexico’s attorney general’s office said last week.
Mexico’s government is trying to halt the illegal sale of the country’s pre-Hispanic treasures abroad, but a pressure campaign is having little effect on auction houses.
The parcel contained 12 pieces from the Teotihuacán civilization and two more from an earlier period, and included a number of masks. Teotihuacán was a city in Mexico State, outside Mexico City, that flourished for six centuries before it was abandoned in about 750 A.D.
The Mexican government has long complained when pre-Columbian pieces appear on the art market, usually with little success. The government stepped up its pressure last October with a campaign called My Heritage Is Not For Sale (Mi Patrimonio No Se Vende) in an attempt to bring awareness to the issue.
Mexican authorities argue that these archeological pieces belong in its museums.
The campaign shared photos of Mexican pre-Hispanic artifacts gathered from auctions around the world and stamped them with the hashtag #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende in different languages.
Among the campaign’s first targets was an auction at Christie’s where an Hacha Maya (a Mayan Axe) dating between 550 and 950 A.D. sold for more than $800,000.
The transaction took place even after Mexico’s culture minister, Alejandra Frausto, described the auction as “illegal” and sent a diplomatic letter to France’s foreign relations ministry and to Christie's asking them not to go forward with the sale.
Last month, the ministry called for “respect” of the country’s cultural heritage ahead of four European auctions offering several pre-Columbian artifacts. The Spanish auction house Setdart listed more than 30 pieces of Mexican origin. The Austrian gallery Zacke planned to sell one Mexican piece. Belgian antiques house Carlo Bonte showed three pieces and the catalog for the French auction house Ader listed 74.
Only the Austrian auction house removed the single Mexican piece from its catalog in response to Mexico's demands.
Over the last three years, Mexico has recovered more than 5,000 archaeological pieces, mostly from the U.S. and Europe. The repatriations were voluntary after Mexico raised awareness of the pieces’ origins.
Katja Silva-Leander y Sebastian Silva-Leander inherited the artifacts from their mother, Birgitta Leander, a renowned historian and researcher who decoded a pre-Columbian codex from Mexico. Lander had acquired the artifact in 1950.
Despite the Mexican government’s efforts, the sales continue.
Heritage Auctions, a Dallas auction house, is offering up to a dozen Mayan pieces for sale in an auction scheduled for this July.
“All of the auctions are bending the law by stating the pieces up for sale were obtained legally before the 70s, even if they can’t provide proof,” Daniel Salinas Córdova, a Mexican independent archaeologist and researcher living in Germany told VICE World News.
Although the government said in March that it had begun legal actions to win the return of the items in the four European auctions it condemned, its campaign largely appeals to the good will of collectors around the world.
“Some collectors around Europe and the U.S. are more aware that what they are doing is unethical and a few are making the decision to voluntarily return their collections to Mexico through the embassies,” Salinas said.
“It is the same issue as with drugs,” Salinas dais. “As long as there is an appetite, a demand for the cultural heritage of other countries, there will be a supply.”