Forget Art and Gems, Thieves Make Discreet Millions at the Library | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN

Forget Art and Gems, Thieves Make Discreet Millions at the Library

Despite how they might appear in some movies, librarians aren’t secret action heroes. But they’re often all that stands in the way of robbers and millions.

Last September, New York City’s Swann Galleries were advertising the sale of an invaluable piece of Spanish and Mexican history: a 500-year-old letter involving Hernán Cortés, the Spanish military leader and colonizer. The letter was expected to sell for somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 until a group of academics intervened. Reuters reports that the letter was one of a cluster of Cortés documents that had been stolen out of the National Archive of Mexico (AGN) and put up for sale. What’s even more shocking is that this is not the first time that important and valuable pieces of history have been stolen from a national archive, prominent library, or museum and ended up on the block at a prominent auction house.

The thefts would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the investigations of amateur sleuths and professional academics María Isabel Grañén Porrúa, a scholar of Spanish colonial books, Michel Oudijk, a Dutch philologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and María del Carmen Martínez, a Cortés scholar at the University of Valladolid in Spain. The suspicions of the group were aroused when a sudden flurry of Cortés papers emerged on the market in 2017. Grañén and Oudijk contacted Mexican antiquities authorities in 2018 and 2019 but when no action was taken by the government, they took matters into their own hands.

Together with Martínez, whose research involved taking thousands of photographs of AGN manuscripts, and the genealogical resources of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints they were able to trace the origins of 10 manuscripts that had come up for auction. The Mexican Foreign Ministry and U.S. Department of Justice are currently working together to repatriate the 10 missing manuscripts. Currently none of the auction houses involved—which include Swann, Bonhams, and Christie’s—have disclosed the names of buyers or sellers (as is common practice for auction houses) but it’s likely that the US government will subpoena this information as part of their investigation. At this point it should become clear who was responsible for surgically removing the documents from their bindings at the AGN and passing them on to other vendors. Grañén told Reuters, “We are very worried, not just by this theft, but also about all the other robberies and looting of national heritage.”

Sadly, this is anything but a one off.