Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2021 Issue

Scholars Turned Sleuths Find Source of Auctioned Cortes Letters – Stolen from the Mexican National Archives

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One of the stolen Cortes letters.

Theft of books and manuscripts has long been an intractable problem for library and other institutional collections. The presence now of a stolen book database makes it harder for thieves to sell this material, but unfortunately, institutions are not always aware of what is missing. Sometimes they don't even know what they have. The result is this sort of merchandise can show up for sale at auctions or from dealers with no one being the wiser. That takes us to this story of ten letters and documents five centuries old whose theft has only recently been made clear.

 

The letters were written by Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes, whose conquest of Mexico was one of the more momentous events in the history of the Americas. By convincing some natives to help fight others, he was able to defeat and end the Aztec Empire, a people not prepared to suddenly be invaded by a brutal foe. Cortes' historic role made these letters very valuable. While Cortes letters are uncommon, this sizable group of them started showing up at auction in 2017, ten in all between then and 2020.

 

This unexpected activity led a group of scholars based in Mexico to become suspicious. They began looking at past auctions and, according to Reuters, found Cortes documents had been sold at Swann's, Christie's, Bonhams, and Nate D. Sanders between 2017-2020. But, where did they come from? The scholars contacted María del Carmen Martínez Martínez, a Spanish historian and expert on Cortes. That proved to be an excellent choice. Ms. Martínez Martínez had visited the National Archive of Mexico (AGN) in 2010 and 2014 and taken thousands of photographs. She began combing through them to see whether any matched the photos in the auction house listings. She found a perfect match. The writing in the auction photo document was identical to that in one of her photos, and it was even missing the same triangular shaped piece of parchment in the left margin. They knew where this one was from. Ultimately, she found matches for eight of the documents in her photographs.

 

The scholars next turned to the Genealogical Society of Utah, part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) headquartered in Salt Lake City. The church has done an amazing job of gathering genealogical evidence all over the world to enable people both in and outside of their church to determine their ancestry. They had photographs taken at AGN in 1993 on microfilm, and when those were examined, they found nine matches. A written description was also located for the tenth document.

 

AGN is located in what is believed to be a fairly secure location, a one-time prison, but their inventorying leaves much to be desired. A representative of the archive indicated that only 40% of the material has been catalogued. With the rest, they don't know what they have. In this case, the photographs enabled them to determine where these documents had been kept. Further investigation revealed that they had been neatly excised from their bindings. Considering the security, there are grave suspicions that this was an inside job.

 

The scholars notified authorities much earlier, but never saw any signs they were making serious efforts to resolve the case. That is what led them into their own sleuthing and the uncovering of the what, though not the who. Mexican and American authorities, when contacted by the press, gave little in response other than the standard “we are working on it.” Presumably, at some point we will hear from them with an explanation and maybe the names of suspects.

 

There are excellent, extensive articles on this story to be found, recently in Reuters and earlier in the El Paso Times.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Graphic Design<br>May 19, 2022</b>
    <b>Swann May 19:</b> Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, <i>Triplex,</i> pencil maquette, 1930. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann May 19:</b> Claude Fayette Brandon, <i>The Chap Book,</i> circa 1895. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann May 19:</b> Various Artists, a complete set of <i>Das Plakat,</i> set of 10 hardcover volumes, 1912-21. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann May 19:</b> Javier Gómez Acebo & Máximo Viejo Santamarta, <i>San Sebastian / XI Circuitto Automovilista,</i> 1935. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann May 19:</b> Ephraim Moses Lilien, <i>Berliner Tageblatt,</i> circa 1899. $12,000 to $18,000.
  • <b><center>Forum Auctions<br>Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper<br>26th May 2022</b>
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Birds.- Gould (John). <i>The Birds of Great Britain,</i> 5 vol., first edition, [1862-]1873. £40,000 to £60,000.
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Canadiana.- Cockburn (Maj. Gen. James Pattison, 1779-1847), After. [Six Landscape of Quebec City and Six Views of Niagara Falls], 2 suites in 1 vol., comprising 12 aquatints, 1833. £30,000 to £40,000.
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Joyce (James). <i>Ulysses,</i> number 218 of 150 copies on verge d'arches, Paris, Shakespeare & Company, 1922. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b><center>Forum Auctions<br>Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper<br>26th May 2022</b>
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Rowling (J.K.) <i>Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,</i> first paperback edition, signed by the author, 1997. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Du Maurier (Daphne). <i>Rebecca,</i> first edition, signed presentation inscription from the author to her governess, 1938. £12,000 to £18,000.
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Magna Carta.- An exact copy of King John's Great Charter of 1215, transcribed from the fire damaged but legible manuscript in the Cottonian Library, British Library, J. Pine, 1733. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b><center>Forum Auctions<br>Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper<br>26th May 2022</b>
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Woolf (Virginia). <i>Mrs Dalloway,</i> first edition, Hogarth Press, 1925. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Tudor exiles opposed to the Marian regime.- Mary I (Queen of England) Letter signed "Marye the Quene" to Lord Paget, signed at head, titled at head "By the King and Quene", 1556. £8,000 to £10,000.
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> America.- Newfoundland.- Whitbourne (Sir Richard). <i>A discourse and discouery of Nevv-found-land…,</i> second edition, By Felix Kingston, 1622. £6,000 to £8,000.
    <b><center>Forum Auctions<br>Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper<br>26th May 2022</b>
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Cervantès Saavedra (Miguel de). <i>El Ingenioso Hidalgo Do Quixote de la Mancha,</i> 4 vol., Madrid, Por Don Joaquin Ibarra, 1780. £5,000 to £7,000.
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Stubbs (George). <i>The Anatomy of the Horse,</i> first edition, first issue, Printed by J. Purser, for the Author, 1766. £6,000 to £8,000.
    <b>Forum, May 26:</b> Cardiology.- Lower (Richard). <i>Tractatus de Corde item De Motu & Colore Sanguinus et Chyli in cum Transitu,</i> first edition, 1669. £5,000 to £7,000.
  • <center><b>Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on May 30</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>Initial A on vellum, Cologne around 1300. Est: €25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>J. Androuet du Cerceau, <i> Bastiments de France,</i> 1607. Est: €12,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>E. Cerillo, <i>Dipinti murali di Pompei,</i> 1886. Est: €2,500
    <center><b>Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on May 30</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>L. de Austria, <i>Compilatio de astrorum scientia,</i> 1489. Est: €9,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>B. Besler, <i>Hortus Eystettensis,</i> around 1750. Est: €50,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br><i>PAN,</i> 1895-1900. Est: €15,000
    <center><b>Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on May 30</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>F. Colonna, <i>Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,</i> 1545. Est: €40,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>F. Schiller, <i>Die Räuber,</i> 1781. Est: €12,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>J. Albers, <i>Formulation : Articulation,</i> 1972. Est: €18,000
    <center><b>Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on May 30</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>G. B. Ramusio, <i>Delle navigationi e viaggi,</i> 1556-1613. Est: €14,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>M. Wied Neuwied, <i>Reise in das Innere Nord-America,</i> 1839-41. Est: €12,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, May 30:</b><br>E. Paolozzi, <i>Bunk,</i> 1972. Est: €25,000
  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br> The Library of Henry Rogers<br>Broughton, 2nd Baron Fairhaven<br>Part I<br>18 May 2022</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, May 18:</b> John James Audubon and James Bachman. <i>The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.</i> New York: J.J. Audubon, 1845-1848. £150,000 to £250,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, May 18:</b> Thomas and William Daniell. <i>Oriental Scenery,</i> London, 1795-1807 [but 1841], 6 parts in 3 volumes, folio. £150,000 to £200,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, May 18:</b> Mark Catesby. <i>The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands...</i> London, 1731-1743, 2 volumes. £100,000 to £150,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, May 18:</b> Gould and Lear. <i>A monograph of the Ramphastidae,</i> 1854; <i>Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae,</i> 1832. £60,000 to £90,000.

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