FBI Returns 16th-Century Letter from Spanish Conquistador to Mexican Government
These photos show the front and back of a document signed by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. The FBI repatriated the document to the Mexican government on July 19, 2023. Photo credit: FBI Boston
On July 19, the FBI returned a letter signed by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to the government of Mexico. An investigation by the FBI Boston Division in collaboration with our legal attaché office in Mexico City and our international partners made the repatriation possible.
"We are incredibly honored to be able to assist in the return of this national treasure to the people of Mexico," said Christopher DiMenna, acting special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division. "This manuscript, which is nearly five centuries old, preserves an important part of Mexico’s history and reflects the FBI’s ongoing commitment to protect cultural heritage, not only in the United States but around the world. The recovery of this priceless artifact is a direct result of our close and ongoing collaboration with the government of Mexico, and we are very thankful for their partnership.”
According to Supervisory Special Agent Kristin Koch, who manages the FBI’s Art Crime Program and led the FBI Boston Division’s investigation, the letter dates back to April 1527. It was signed by Cortés, whose large-scale expedition from Spain to Mexico about eight years earlier eventually led to the downfall of the Aztec Empire.
“The document itself is a payment order that he signed authorizing the purchase of rose sugar for the pharmacy in exchange for 12 gold pesos,” Koch said.
The Disappearing Letter
The letter was originally in the possession of Mexico’s national archives, formally known as El Archivo General de la Nación, Koch said. However, she explained it was among a batch of 15 historic documents—all signed by the Spanish explorer—that were looted from the institution "sometime in the late '80s or early '90s."
The letter was rediscovered at a Massachusetts-based auction house in 2022, decades after it had gone missing. After the company’s website put the letter up for auction, a representative of Mexico’s national archives reached out to FBI for help.
According to Koch, neither the FBI nor the Mexican government know when or how the document was stolen, nor how it made its way onto American soil. “But we do know that it ended up in an auction house in California in the early '90s, and it moved through several different hands until it reached the person that consigned it to the auction house in Massachusetts,” Koch said.
"This manuscript, which is nearly five centuries old, preserves an important part of Mexico’s history and reflects the FBI’s ongoing commitment to protect cultural heritage, not only in the United States but around the world.”
Acting Special Agent in Charge Christopher DiMenna, FBI Boston Division
From left to right: FBI Supervisory Special Agent Angel Catalan of Legat Mexico City; U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar; Dr. Carlos Enrique Ruiz Abreu, director general del Archivo General de la Nación; Lic. Miguel Ángel Méndez Buenos Aires, coordinador de asuntos internacionales y agregadurías de la Fiscalía General de la Republica; Mtro. Alejandro Celorio Alcántara, consultor jurídico de la Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores; and Manuel Zepeda, director general de comunicación social de la Secretaria de Cultura pose for a photo at a repatriation ceremony in Mexico on July 19, 2023. During the ceremony, the FBI repatriated a document signed by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to the government of Mexico. Photo credit: U.S. State Department
"Through the mutual legal assistance treaty process, the Mexican government provided us with official documentation outlining exactly why they believed that this document belonged to them,” Koch explained.
The Mexican government didn’t have a photograph of the letter but knew its specific dimensions, as well as information about the letter’s exact verbiage. “That gave us enough probable cause to obtain a seizure warrant to take the document from the auction house and bring it into our custody,” Koch said.
When the FBI seizes an artifact, the Bureau’s priority becomes establishing provenance—or an item’s origin—as well as determining how it arrived at its new location, Koch explained. In this case, FBI Boston invited personnel from Mexico’s national archives to Massachusetts to determine the letter’s authenticity via an in-person examination.
That analysis proved that the letter was genuine, and the FBI investigation determined that neither the person who put the letter up for auction, nor its previous owner, had known it was stolen. The Bureau then began the process of repatriating the artifact to the Mexican government.
"The FBI will continue to collaborate with Mexican entities to identify, trace, and repatriate other items of immeasurable value that belong to Mexico's historical and cultural patrimony.”
Supervisory Special Agent Angel Catalan, Legat Mexico City