Repatriation of Artefacts Mexico Wants Its Archaeological Heritage Back

Feather headdress of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma in the Weltmuseum Wien
Feather headdress of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma in the Weltmuseum Wien | Photo (detail): Leonhard Foeger © picture alliance / REUTERS

In recent years, Mexico’s government has increased efforts to recover the nation’s archaeological heritage from abroad, fighting against trafficking and commercialisation, and repatriating over five thousand artefacts. Recently a grand exhibition opened in Mexico City displaying many of them for the first time, but not without controversy.
 

As in much of the global South, Mexico’s heritage has been looted, trafficked and collected by foreigners for centuries, particularly during the 19th and early 20th century by travellers, explorers and later, tourists from Europe and the US. In response, Mexico started protecting its heritage, forbidding its exportation shortly after its independence from Spain. Increasingly, since the 1970s requests for the return of some of the most outstanding pieces of its cultural patrimony located in collections abroad have been made.

The legal basis of Mexico’s claims for the return of its archaeological heritage lies in its national laws, dating back to the 1820s, prohibiting the extraction of artefacts from the country. Since the 1890s, by law all of the precolonial archaeology from Mexican territory belongs to the Mexican nation. These principles are present in the country’s current monument law from 1972, which states that all precolonial archaeological monuments from Mexico are “property of the Nation, inalienable and imprescriptible”. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property from 1970, the main international legislation on the matter, is also widely referred to when return claims have been made in the last decades.

“The Greatness of Mexico”

In its three years of government, the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, has made the retrieval of Mexican cultural heritage a priority, increasing efforts against its trafficking and commercialisation. Mexican cultural and diplomatic authorities have put great efforts in this, denouncing and attempting to halt auctions, cooperating with foreign and international law enforcement organisations, and negotiating with governments and museums to recover the material traces of Mexico’s past from abroad.

These efforts, and their promotion, have intensified in recent months due to this year’s array of national commemorations, related to historical anniversaries. In 2021 the bicentennial of the consummation of Independence is celebrated, as well as the 700 years since the founding of Mexico-Tenochtitlán by the Aztecs. The quincentenary of the city’s fall to the Spanish conquistadors is also an important event that was commemorated as the “500 years of Indigenous resistance”. For the 200th anniversary of the consummation of Mexico’s independence from Spain an exhibition entitled The Greatness of Mexico opened in two venues in Mexico City on 27th September 2021. The exhibition includes many of the over five thousand cultural goods that the current administration has repatriated since December 2018. Of the over 1,500 archaeological, historical, artistic and ethnographic items comprising the exhibition, around 800 objects had never been publicly displayed. At the exhibition’s opening, AMLO also announced that a special crime unit dedicated to retrieving looted artworks and antiquities, modelled after the Italian Carabinieri, would be created.
  • Anthropomorphic mask, from the Mesoamerican Preclassic Period (1200–600 BC) © Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México
    This anthropomorphic mask, from the Mesoamerican Preclassic Period (1200–600 BC) and made of metamorphic stone in the Olmec style, is one of the archaeological pieces that German citizens voluntarily returned to Mexico in mid-2021.
  • Archaeological pieces in a showcase from the ancient cultures on the coast of the Golf of Mexiko © Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México
    There are 34 archaeological pieces from the regions occupied by the ancient cultures on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, in the Central Mexican Plateau, in the west (Colima and southern Nayarit), and in the Maya area.
  • Clay tripod pot with polychrome decoration © Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México
    Among them is this clay tripod pot with polychrome decoration made by the Maya culture around the Postclassic Period (1000–1521 AD).
  • Anthropomorphic head in the Totonac style © Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México
    This anthropomorphic head in the Totonac style and corresponding to the Mesoamerican Classic Period (250–900 AD) was returned to Mexico.
  • Clay sculpture of a seated character © Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México
    Another recovered piece is this clay sculpture of a seated character from the western cultures of Mexico, which is known from the shaft tomb tradition.
  • Anthropomorphic head in the Totonac style © Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México
    This anthropomorphic head in the Totonac style and corresponding to the Mesoamerican Classic Period (250–900 AD), is one of the pieces that was returned.
  • A collection of recovered pieces, including anthropomorphic figures made of clay, pots and vessels. © Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México
    Among the recovered pieces from Germany, there are anthropomorphic figures made of clay, pots and vessels, and one that is a type of effigy, along with stamps and fragments of anthropomorphic figurines.
  • The USA returns a Mayan urn made between 900 - 1600 AD. © Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México
    The USA returns a Mayan urn made between 900 - 1600 AD to Mexico.
The return of 5,746 Mexican cultural goods in the last three years, mostly archaeological artefacts, is a great achievement for the current administration. It is the result of different processes in which international cooperation has been a key aspect. Some artefacts have been returned after being seized at borders without proper documentation, like the four figurines returned from Australia to México in November 2020, after being seized at customs on their way to a buyer; others derive from voluntary returns by private individuals, as in two recent cases in Germany when 37 figurines from cultures such as the Olmec, Maya or from the Colima and Nayarit regions were handed over to the Mexican Embassy in Berlin. Other returns were the result of inter-institutional cooperation, such as in the case of a notable, 500-year-old Maya urn from Chiapas, returned by an American liberal arts college in April 2021.

All of these are permanent returns, true recoveries, however some of the objects exhibited in The Greatness of Mexico have only returned to Mexico as loans. A year ago, Dr. Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, wife of AMLO, toured four European countries, aiming to obtain important Mexican artefacts, artworks, and documents on loan from European collections for the exhibition. Among the requested pieces were the so-called Penacho de Moctezuma, a magnificent Mexica feather headdress, held in Vienna’s Weltmuseum, as well as several early colonial codices located in Italy and the Vatican such as the Borgia or the Florentine Codex.

“Local archaeologists [ ...] raised concerns, noting that one does not ask to borrow what is already yours, warning that requesting national heritage on loan and the accompanying legal changes were detrimental, as they set a precedent, implying that the legitimate owners of Mexico’s heritage abroad are the foreign nations or institutions.”

The loan requests of these, as well as other invaluable Mexican artefacts from abroad, was not uncontroversial. The regulations to the monument law were modified, and local archaeologists, such as the renowned expert on the Mexica Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, raised concerns, noting that one does not ask to borrow what is already yours, warning that requesting national heritage on loan and the accompanying legal changes were detrimental, as they set a precedent, implying that the legitimate owners of Mexico’s heritage abroad are the foreign nations or institutions.

Not all of the artefacts requested for the exhibition were loaned. Citing its fragility, Austria did not lend the famous Aztec feather headdress and, instead of sending the original codices in its collections, the Vatican gifted facsimile copies of them to Mexico. Nevertheless, 44 pieces from collections in France, Italy, Sweden and the USA were loaned and are now being exhibited publicly in Mexico City, where for the first time Mexicans can view them. Among them is what has been said to be the skull of Moctezuma from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and a map of Mexico City from 1550 on loan from Uppsala University. When the exhibition closes in April 2022, they will once again return to Europe.

The Politics Behind the Return of Cultural Goods

By putting so much emphasis in their efforts and achievements to fight antiquities trafficking and to recover artefacts from abroad, the Mexican government is putting out the message, both abroad and at home, that this is a critical issue and that they will persist in their efforts to retrieve Mexico’s heritage, and stop its commodification and commercialisation. Domestically, this also counters the strong criticisms to AMLO’s cultural policies and the ongoing crisis of the heritage sector caused by years of funding cuts and mismanagement.

Politics aside, the increasing rate of return of archaeological artefacts to Mexico, and the Mexican government’s renewed efforts to fight illicit trafficking is something to be celebrated. 

Mexico’s heritage does not belong in private collections, embellishing the homes of the wealthy in the global North, bought and sold as a commodity, nor in glass cases in Western museums, inaccessible to the vast majority of Mexicans. Above all, the artefacts belong to the people with strong cultural and identity affiliations with them, and they should be accessible to be known, studied, and enjoyed by them in their places of origin.