Mexico Is Forming a New Art Crime Unit to Track Down Looted Artifacts

A recent study found that nine out of ten cultural objects that are stolen in Mexico are never recovered.

Model of the Puuc style temple of Hochob at Museo Nacional De Antropología in Mexico City. DeAgostini/Getty Images

Inspired by the success the Italian police have had in recovering stolen art and antiquities, Andres Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, recently announced the formation of a special art crime unit dedicated to tracking down looted Mexican artifacts. Last week, following a joint investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Homeland Security and the Mexican government, the Mexican Consulate repatriated manuscripts related to Hernán Cortés that had been illegally removed from Mexico’s National Archive. Such successes are generally rare for the country; a recent study found that nine out of ten cultural objects that are stolen in Mexico are never recovered.

The Mexican government is clearly looking to improve their track record. “We are already going to follow the Italian example,” López Obrador said last week. “I have already instructed a special team be set up to achieve this purpose. Imagine if every country had such a unit and worked together to repatriate works that had been looted or trafficked from their countries of origin.” Similarly, the US Department of the Treasury is currently gathering research in order to issue new regulations related to the American antiquities trade, which has historically facilitated the exchange and sale of stolen objects.

Indeed, the manuscripts taken from the Mexico National Archive were rediscovered when they began to pop up at auction houses like Christie’s and Bonhams between 2017 and 2020. “A number of cases have arisen in which stolen antiquities have been recovered in the US,” Michael McCullough, a lawyer based in New York, told The Art Newspaper. Plus, he added, “there are a lot of questionable characters who operate out of places where there is little regulation.” Details about the forthcoming art crime unit in Mexico have yet to be officially released. Mexico Is Forming a New Art Crime Unit to Track Down Looted Artifacts