For about 30 years, a 16th-century purchase order signed by the conquistador Hernán Cortés, who led the overthrow of the Aztec Empire for the Spanish crown, had disappeared from Mexico’s national archives and instead made its path to private auction blocks. across the United States.
The 1527 document was stolen from the Archivo General de la Nación de México in Mexico City sometime before 1993, according to a filing by the US Attorney for Massachusetts.
But over the summer, the FBI shut down the illicit traffic, even as the investigation into the theft of the document remained open. On Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced the recovery of the stolen document in hopes of repatriating it to Mexico, where its value may not be associated with the amount the purchase order would have fetched at auction.
Dr. Susan Elizabeth Ramirez, emeritus professor of history and Latin American studies at Texas Christian University, said recovering documents like this “can change everything”.
“Without manuscripts, we cannot write history,” she said.
The manuscript is a payment order signed by Cortés on April 27, 1527, ordering his butler, Nicolás de Palacios Rubios, to purchase “pink sugar” from the pharmacy in exchange for 12 gold pesos. One side reflects the request and the other side registers the payment. According to an affidavit, the receipt is handwritten, in Spanish, in iron gall ink on rag paper and measures approximately 8.5 inches by 6 inches.
The document belonged to the Fondo Hospital de Jesús in the Mexican archives. According to Mexican authorities, the collection was declared a national asset and was cataloged in 1929. A manuscript that remains in the collection contains a record indicating that 12 pesos were used to purchase “pink sugar” for the navy pharmacy in as part of an expedition.
Cortés set sail for Mexico in 1519 with the aim of overthrowing the Aztec Emperor Montezuma in the capital of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs initially repelled the Spanish invasion, but Cortés returned in 1521 and took control of the city in a siege that burned the lake-bordered city to ruins and brought diseases such as smallpox which tore the population apart. Within decades of the invasion, the disease had killed up to 20 million Aztecs.
Dr. Ramirez said the document dated from a time when Cortés was exploring southern Mexico, around modern-day Honduras, a time when he claimed a private workforce of around 23,000. She said the description of “pink sugar” most likely referred to a refining technique used to make molasses that left behind a tinted sugar, something that is adjacent to brown sugar today.
After the manuscript was taken from Mexico, the provenance of the document crossed over to the United States. According to an FBI investigation, the manuscript was purchased at an auction in the 1990s by the founder of the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita, Kan. His family took the document to Goldberg Coins and Collectibles in Los Angeles, and in 2019 a Florida resident bought it at auction. That person then contracted with RR Auction in Massachusetts, where the document went up for auction in June.
The Mexican government reported the sale of the document to the FBI on June 6. The document received 22 offers; on June 8, when the FBI informed RR Auction of the possibility that the document had been stolen, the bid price was $18,626. The item was later removed from the auction house’s website.
“As soon as we were contacted, we halted the sale, notified the shipper, and there was no problem with them,” said RR Auction attorney Mark S. Zaid.
In a statement, the National General Archives of Mexico said it sent a committee of experts to the FBI office in Boston in August to authenticate the document. The document should be repatriated to Mexico.
Dr. Ramirez said trafficking in missing archival material is ubiquitous in Latin America. A number of items were stolen from archives in Peru, and a large amount of material was recovered by the Mexican government and US law enforcement in New York in February. Among the documents included was a letter written by Cortés.
“The problem is structural,” Dr. Ramirez said. “Until the archives are more professionalized, this will continue to happen.”
Jesus Jiménez, Mike Ives and Michael Levenson contributed report.