By: Alyssa Perez
April 14, 2023
Almost a year ago it was estimated that since launching its strong, unique #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende campaign in 2018, the Mexican government had recovered approximately 9,000 archaeological and historical objects that were illegally abroad. Under the slogan #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (“My Heritage is Not For Sale”), the Mexican government has facilitated the return of 2,522 objects from Barcelona, Spain, 223 objects from the Netherlands, 34 objects from Germany, and over 50 objects from Austria, Canada, Sweden, and the United States, among others. These numbers greatly surpass the results previously seen by the Mexican government. According to Mexico’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, President López Obrador’s #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende campaign has dwarfed the results of the previous administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, which brought back only 1,300 works between 2012 and 2018.
The Mexican government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and Mexico’s Secretary of Culture have undertaken the #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende campaign. The campaign’s purpose is two-fold: (1) recovering Mexico’s cultural heritage illegally stolen from the country and (2) raising awareness that these valuable items are out there and should not be sold or put up for auction. To facilitate these returns, Mexico’s Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, explained that the government is “using three strategies: voluntary returns by raising awareness, by insisting to the owners or those with the rights to the various types of collections. Second, through confiscation, which is the legal pathway. And third, by cancelling auctions. That had not been done until now.”
Although the Mexican government has been met with great success on facilitating returns from numerous countries across the globe, the third strategy “cancelling auctions,” is where international resistance to the #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende campaign lies today. Currently, the Mexican government is enabled to cancel some actions by “defending the premise or the doctrine that whoever conducts the auction has to prove the legal provenance of what is being auctioned and not the other way around.” Yet, in 2021, an auction at Christie’s in Paris sold 50 Mexican objects for $1.8 million USD and an auction at Sotheby’s in New York sold 24 Mexican objects for $657,500 USD. Again, in 2022, 60 Mexican archaeological artifacts were put up for sale by the Parisian auction house, Giquello & Associés. The INAH urged Giquello & Associés to “take into consideration the historical, symbolic and cultural value of the assets, which are superior to any commercial interest;” but, the auction house proceeded with the sale because all relevant objects hold an export license or proof of provenance.
Today, Mexico’s battle with French auction houses continues. On March 27, 2023, the Mexican government called for Millon: Maison de Ventes Aux Enchères, a Parisian auction house, to cancel its planned sale of 83 archaeological objects. These objects, according to the INAH, are protected under Mexican law. In an effort to cause the return of the objects, the Mexican government filed an official complaint against Millon and sent letters to the Legal Consultancy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Director General of International Police Affairs, and Interpol. As with previous return efforts, Frausto Guerrero, Mexico’s Secretary of Culture, urged the action house to take into consideration that the objects’ historical, symbolic and cultural value is superior to any commercial interest. However, again, the auction house plans to move forward with the salebecause the objects have “irreproachable origin and answer perfectly to the criteria fixed by UNESCO’s convention ratified by Mexico and France.”
The Mexican government’s attempts to repatriate these objects from Millon highlights the complicated nature of these kinds of international returns. Since 1897 Mexican law has regulated artifacts and prohibited the export of archeological objects; however, Mexican legislation carries no legal weight outside of Mexico and thus international auction houses and private dealers are under no legal obligation to repatriate works to the Mexican government. Cultural property is also governed by the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property(UNESCO 1970 Convention), an international treaty to which Mexico and France are both States Parties. The UNESCO 1970 Convention provides a common framework for the States Parties on possible measures to prohibit and prevent the import, export, and transfer of cultural property. However, different States Parties have adopted the UNESCO 1970 Convention in various ways and thus the UNESCO 1970 Convention is not applicable to facilitate returns of cultural heritage in all situations. Further, as a States Party, Mexico is “obliged to respect the terms of it, which are perfectly clear on the subordination of the national laws on the international chessboard,” stated the auctioneer Alexandre Giquell. Ultimately, although the Mexican government’s third strategy is “auction cancelling,” the government will likely continue to see a greater success rate with its other two strategies, voluntary returns and confiscation.
The #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende campaign is an unprecedented national effort to facilitate the return of Mexican cultural heritage. Approximately 9,000 returns of objects of cultural significance in just five years is a monumental achievement. Although Mexico’s “battle” is not close to being over, the #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende campaign may serve as a unique model and important lesson for other countries suffering from the legacies of colonialism and cultural exploitation, like Cambodia and Iraq.