Saturday, June 22, 2024

Recovered Olmec artifact arrives in Mexico; to be displayed in Cuernavaca

“Gateway to the Underworld” (Portal del Inframundo), one of Mexico’s most sought-after artifacts of Olmec culture, has been returned home after it was removed from Mexico more than 50 years ago. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard first shared news of the piece’s recovery in April. 

The monumental piece, which depicts an earth monster, a recurrent theme in Olmec art, weighs more than 1 ton and measures approximately 1.8 meters high by 1.5 meters wide. The figure’s jaws, which are opened like the mouth of a cave, represent the entrance to the underworld.

Its return to Cuernavaca International Airport was the culmination of an 18-year search, Mexican officials told the Denver Post as the artifact was being loaded Friday onto a Mexican Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft in Denver.

It was stolen from Morelos decades ago under mysterious circumstances. According to archeologist David Grove — who published an article in 1968 on Olmec carvings at the Chilcatzingo archeological site in the journal American Antiquity — the artifact had been stripped from the site by then and was in the hands of a private collector Grove did not name.   

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited the work from July 1970 through February 1971 as part of its “Before Cortes” exhibition, according to a museum spokesperson cited by the Post. The spokesperson told the newspaper it had been on loan to the museum from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard welcomed the artifact back to Mexico at Cuernavaca Airport. (Marcelo Ebrard/Twitter)

Mexican officials told the Post a breakthrough in their search came when they approached the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office with evidence that it had been stolen from Mexico. The unit began an investigation, according to Alejandro Celorio, principal legal advisor for Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The unit eventually tracked down Monument 9 in Colorado, in a private collection, Mexican officials said. They declined to name the collectors.

“They got a settlement,” Consul General of Mexico in New York Jorge Islas López told the Post. “They’re super famous, super wealthy people.”

After the monument’s arrival in Cuernavaca, it was transferred to the Regional Museum of the Peoples of Morelos in the colonial-era Cortés Palace, where it will be displayed.   

It was examined by the head of the National Coordination for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage María del Carmen Castro Barrera, restoration expert Ana Bertha Miramontes Mercado and archeologists Mario Córdova and Carolina Meza, who reported that the artifact “is in a stable condition of conservation and was not affected during its transfer to Mexico.” 

In a ceremony led by the head of the National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH) Diego Prieto Hernández on Thursday morning, Monument 9 was officially delivered to the people of Morelos. 

Monument 9, Olmec artifact on display in Cuernavaca Mexico
“Gateway to the Underworld,” now back home in Morelos, will be exhibited permanently at the Regional Museum of the Peoples of Morelos in Cuernavaca. (Margarita Pérez Retana/Cuartoscuro)

The piece is now properly assembled and will be exhibited at the museum, INAH said.  

Since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, the Government of Mexico has recovered more than 11,500 pieces considered to be part of the country’s national heritage. The government has battled auctioneers in cities ranging from New York to Paris to Rome, where Mexico’s stolen history has been put up for sale.  

With reports from INAH and Swiss Info

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