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It takes a thief… or two or three

15 May 2023

If the British Museum has the world’s best collection of stolen goods in the world, it’s kinda of a jumble. Perhaps the National Library of France thought it too messy, and decided to specialize in one kind of pilfered possessions… obviously written documents.

Like the Tonalamatl (roughtly a Nahuatl “Book of Revelations”).

I can’t read it either… but a Monsieur Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin… bopping around Mexico back in the late 1830s on a looting expediton (er.. doing archeolgical research back in the day when European empires figured everybody else’s history was fair game) though it worthwhile to nab the only known copy in 1840, out of the collection of the 18th century Spanish collector and historian Lorenzo Boturini Where exactly Botuini acquired it during his research into the Virgin of Guadalupe story, part of his planned history of “Septronial”.. north-ish… America”, and apparently annoyed somebody in the colonial administration. He had him deported in 1743, much of his (presumably pilfered in the first place) research documents seized, and turned over the the Viceroy.

Which in tern were seized by the Republic, and housed in what passed for the national archives of the time, when Aubin walked in one day in 1840, stuck the tonalamatl codex (the Aztec style book) under his coat, and simply walked out. Along with several trunks of loot Aubin acquired in the course of his own investigations, he high-tailed it back to Paris.

Aubin would return to Mexico during the reign of Emperor Maximilian, but… well… things didn’t go so well for the French and their puppets, and he soon found himself headed home, and drifting into paranoia. Guilty conscience or Aztec curse? You decide.

While still considered an expert and scholar of his field, his “collection” was acquired by the Biblioteque Nacional… where it sat undisturbed until the 19th of June, 1982. That morning, a Mexican lawyer and newspaper owner, José Luis Castañeda, having asked to see the codex, pulled a reverse Autin move of 1840, sticking the fragile amate scroll under HIS coat, headed to the airport, and caught a flight to Madrid.

The perps: Botorini, Aubin, Casteñeda

With the Sûreté and Interpol chased Casteñeda around the globe…. from Madrid, to Cairo, to New York, to Cancún, where the found the errant document sitting in Casteñada’s desk drawer. He claimed.. and would a newpsper man lie? Would a lawyer? (Don’t answer that!)… that he had done the deed for the honor of Mexico. Alas, it appears he had met with rare book dealers (er… fences) in New York, but it did put a strain on Franco-Mexico diplomatic relations. The French… having once had the Mona Lisa spirited out of the Louve by a patriotic Italian … were loathe to admit they were themselves cultural theives… after all, the French claim they “own” culture, n’est-ce pas? And the Mexicans, while not quite willing to accept that one of their own would be so base as to do what has been done for centuries (i.e. selling off national treasures to foreigners, and perfidious gringos in New York at that) not willing to extradite or even charge Casteñada, a cultural cold war persisted for several years.

The Biblioteque Nacional denied entry to Mexican passport holders, and French cultural programs in Mexico were curtailed. A face-saving truce was finally reached in 1990, when the French “permanently loaned” the Tomlamatl de Aubin to INAH (the National Institute for Anthropology and History)… keeping it safely locked away, although it’s easily availabe (if you happen to read Nahuatl glyphs) on-line here.

“El mexicano que robó a Francia un códice azteca para devolverlo a México”, Mexico Disconosido

“Tonalamatl Aubin”, Mediateca INAH

“Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin”, Puebloas Originarios

Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci: apuntes biográficos”. Códice Boturini

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