For nearly 30 years, a 16th-century purchase order signed by conquistador Hernán Cortés, who led the overthrow of the Aztec empire for the Spanish crown, has disappeared from Mexico’s national archives, instead making its way to private auction blocks. United States.
The 1527 document was stolen from the archives of the General de la Nación de Mexico in Mexico City before 1993, according to the US Attorney for Massachusetts.
But over the summer, the FBI put an end to the illegal trade, although the investigation into how the document was stolen remains open. Federal prosecutors on Tuesday announced the recovery of the stolen document in hopes of returning it to Mexico, where its value may not be related to how much the purchase order fetches at auction.
Susan Elizabeth Ramirez, professor emeritus of history and Latin American studies at Texas Christian University, said recovering such documents “could change everything.”
“Without manuscripts, we cannot write history,” he said.
The manuscript is a payment order signed by Cortés on April 27, 1527, instructing his servant, Nicolás de Palacios Rubios, to buy “pink sugar” from an apothecary for 12 gold pesos. One side reflects the request and the other side records the payment. According to the affidavit, the receipt was handwritten, in Spanish, in iron gall ink on rag paper and measured about 8 1/2 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 national property and cataloged in 1929. A manuscript in the collection contains a note indicating that 12 pesos were spent on purchasing “pink sugar” from the navy’s apothecary in connection with the expedition.
Cortes left for Mexico in 1519 with the intention of overthrowing the Aztec emperor Montezuma in the capital of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs initially repelled the Spanish invasion, but Cortés returned in 1521 and captured the city in a siege that devastated the lakeside city and brought diseases such as smallpox that decimated the population. Within a few decades of the invasion, disease killed nearly 20 million Aztecs.
Ramirez said the document dates to a time when Cortes was scouting in southern Mexico, around modern-day Honduras, where he credited himself with a personal workforce of about 23,000 men. He said the description of “pink sugar” likely relates to a processing method used to make molasses that leaves behind colored sugar, something akin to brown sugar today.
After the manuscript was taken from Mexico, the document’s origin was cut off in the United States. According to an FBI investigation, the manuscript was purchased at an auction in the 1990s by the founder of the World Treasures Museum in Wichita, Kansas. His family consigned the document to Goldberg Coins and Collectibles in Los Angeles, and in 2019, the Florida resident bought it at auction. That person then contracted with RR Auction in Massachusetts, where the document was auctioned in June.
The Mexican government announced the sale of the document to the FBI on June 6. The document received 22 proposals; The bid price was $18,626 when the FBI notified RR Auction about the possible theft of the document on June 8. The item was later removed from the auction house’s website.
“As soon as we were contacted, we stopped the sale, notified the consignor, and had no problem with them,” said Mark S. Zaid, an attorney for RR Auction.
Mexico’s National General Archives said in a statement that it sent a committee of experts to the FBI’s office in Boston in August to verify the authenticity of the document. The document is expected to be returned to Mexico.
Ramirez said trafficking in missing archival items is widespread in Latin America. A number of items were stolen from archives in Peru, and in February a large number of documents were discovered in New York by the Mexican government and US law enforcement officials. Among the included documents was a letter written by Cortes.
“The problem is the structure,” Ramirez said. “This will continue until the archives become more professional.”