Art Crime in Mexico

We continue today from yesterday’s column about the conference in Paris last week which celebrated the 1970 UNESCO convention on the protection of cultural heritage, today focusing on art crime in Mexico.

As reported by my colleague Catherine Schofield Sezgin, one of the stand-out moments of the Paris conference was the call from the Mexican delegates for help in enforcing the UNESCO laws to better protect Mexican cultural property.

I was recently interviewed by Juan Pablo Reyes of the Mexican national newspaper, El Universal, about art crime worldwide, and in Mexico in particular.  When that interview is published I will post a link here, and a translation of the interview into English.  But the fact of these two events coinciding last week inspired me to write a brief summary of art crime in Mexico for today’s installment of The Secret History of Art.

One of the difficulties in gathering data on art crime is that, in most countries, specifics about cases and are not generally available to foreign criminologists.  The only cases for which information is available are closed cases.  And art crime is, unfortunately, a very good business for criminals.  The best national police recovery rates for stolen art are around 10%, meaning that in 90% of art crime cases, the stolen or looted objects are never found.  Successful prosecution rates for art crime cases are even smaller, 3-6% in many cases (for more on this, please see Charney, Noah ed. Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World Praeger 2009).  So our body of information for study tends to be very small indeed.

In the case of Mexico, a common question is this: we know that much world art crime is perpetrated either by or on behalf of organized crime groups, from local gangs to international syndicates.  Are Mexican drug cartels involved in art crime as well?

The answer is almost certainly, but specific cases have not been made available, and are currently classified by the Mexican government and law enforcement bodies.  The problem in Mexico is largely illicit looting and export of archaeological objects, with theft of religious art from churches a distant second.  Most looting of archaeological objects is first done by local tomb raiders, most often peasants or farmers who dig locally on the weekends and unearth a seemingly endless supply of artifacts from the soil.  They sell these artifacts to local members of organized crime groups, who pay cash for them, perhaps less than1% of their market value, but cash which is invaluable as an extra source of income to these locals.  The organized crime groups have the means to transport, smuggle, and sell these artifacts, most often to unsuspecting buyers, through means as elaborate as selling at fancy galleries and auction houses using fake provenance to suggest that the artifacts were legally excavated and exported (before the 1970 UNESCO convention), or as mundane as selling them on eBay.

How much art is stolen in Mexico?  INAH (National Institute of Anthropology) announced that between 1997-2010 there were 2,000,655 art objects reported as having been stolen in a total of 481 thefts.  Of those two-million plus objects, around 420,000 were classified as antiquities and 235,000 were classified as of “historical value.”  If these statistics are correct, then the 13 years covered by that study mean that there was an average of 153,896 objects reported stolen per year, which would be five times more than Italy (which is the country which has by far the most art objects reported to Interpol as having been stolen each year, with 20,000-30,000).

This discrepancy between Italian and Mexican statistics is probably accounted for by a distinction in what constitutes an art object.  In Italy most of the objects are more substantial, paintings, drawings, or Etruscan antiquities, whereas the INAH statistic may include fragments or small, very low-value antiques.

Statistics aside, the point is that Mexico is losing its cultural property at an alarming rate, and that crimes against cultural property not only damage culture, history, and knowledge but also fund organized crime.

Below is a summary of some notable events in Mexican art crime.

  • 2007 saw the most recorded robberies, with 60,000 archaeological object reported stolen in that year alone.
  • A large recovery was announced 27 July 2010 of 14 colonial religious works and 144 pre-hispanic pieces, plus 36 forgeries.  Details of the recovery are classified as of spring 2011.
  • 2008 case of the priest Corona Rolando Elios, jailed for stealing sacred art from his church in San Andres Buenavista in Tlaxcala.  But that case does not seem to have involved organized crime.
  • Harald Wagner purchased 70 murals stolen from Teotihuacan in the 1960s, and it seems that the thieves and smugglers were members of a syndicate, but it is not publicly known which one.

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