Sensitive to Art & its Discontents
Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced yesterday, September 14, that the nation has received more than 50 repatriated pre-Hispanic artifacts. The objects were “voluntarily returned” by citizens to the Mexican embassies in Austria, Canada, and Sweden and to the Mexican consulates in Vancouver and Albuquerque, according to INAH’s statement.
Among the artifacts were a Zapotec urn dating from approximately 600 to 900 CE and a pillar fragment from the Classic Mayan archaeological site Santa Rosa Xtampak. The hilltop site — located in the rainforest of the Campeche state on the Yucatán Peninsula — is one of Mexico’s most impressive examples of Classic Mayan architecture, and the returned pillar was taken from the site’s most elaborate structure — the three-story, eighth-century El Palacio. The pillar fragment, first documented by an Austrian archaeologist in 1891, was recovered by Mexico’s embassy in Austria.
In July, the Mexican government announced that almost 3,000 artifacts had been returned to the nation in the past three years. In the same month, a family in Spain elected to repatriate 2,522 pre-Hispanic objects to Mexico, and last year, the Mexican embassy in Berlin orchestrated the voluntary return of 34 objects. It is unclear whether the most recent objects sent back to Mexico were previously housed in private or public collections or elsewhere, and INAH has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for additional information regarding the nature of the return.
While these voluntary restitutions offer a silver lining in the embroiled repatriation disputes occurring at institutions worldwide, global auction houses have continued to sell Mexican pre-Hispanic artifacts in recent years, often sparking sharp criticism from the nation’s government.
In February of 2021, INAH tried to prevent Christie’s from auctioning off over 30 pre-Hispanic objects; in September of last year, Mexico’s Secretary of Culture attempted to stop an auction in Munich; and in November, Mexico was unsuccessful in halting two auctions of pre-Hispanic objects in Paris.
Mexico’s new lot of returned objects are now being kept at INAH in Mexico City, where they will undergo analysis and conservation.
“They are testimonies to the peoples that made and used them,” INAH stated. “Each object tells us a story that helps us understand our identity as a nation.”
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Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art’s role in history, culture, and politics.
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Hyperallergic is a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today. Founded in 2009, Hyperallergic is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York.


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