Mexican officials say they have recovered a massive carved statue dating from the Olmec period that they believe was stolen decades ago. Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, said the sculpture had been recovered and would soon “return to its home, from where it should have never been stolen”, according to a statement posted to Twitter last week. The Consul General of Mexico in New York, Jorge Islas, was notified that the piece had been recovered by the Antiquities Trafficking unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, but further details of the sculpture’s recovery have not been released.
The carved statue, known as Monument 9, measures 1.8 metres tall, 1.5 metres wide and weighs about one tonne, Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) said in a statement. The sculpture represents an “Earth monster”, which researchers said is a common motif in Olmec iconography, and likely dates back to the Middle Preclassic Period (800BCE-400BCE). The statue originated from Chalcatzingo, a large archaeological site in the state of Morelos in south-central Mexico.
A specialist from the Chalcatzingo Archaeological Project said the figure’s open jaws symbolise a gateway to the underworld, and that three bands circling its mouth represent access to a cave. In the corner of the figure’s mouth are images of branches of a bromeliad plant, which are characteristic of iconography in the Chalcatzingo area, the specialist said.
While it’s still unclear how the sculpture was removed from Chalcatzingo, officials said its removal was illegal. Monument 9 was likely already in the US by 1950, according to the INAH, and the sculpture was recorded in 1968 by an archaeologist in an issue of American Antiquity Magazine.
"This monument is a key piece for research on Olmec iconography, which is why we receive this news with joy and enthusiasm,” archaeologist Mario Córdova Tello said in an INAH statement.
The Olmec statue is the latest (and possibly the largest) of thousands of archaeological objects to be returned to Mexico from all over the world over the past few years. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is an outspoken supporter of repatriation as a foreign policy priority, and his administration launched a campaign calling for Mexico’s cultural heritage to be repatriated using the social media hashtag #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (“My heritage is not for sale”).
Just last week, authorities in France, Italy and Germany returned a total of 86 cultural objects to Mexico. Earlier last month, Italy returned 43 objects to Mexico that had been recovered by Italy’s Carabinieri Art Squad, the police branch that specialises in art and antiquities crimes. The Netherlands returned 223 artefacts last December.
In March, Mexican authorities pressured Millon, an auction house in Paris, to return 83 pre-Columbian objects they claimed were protected under Mexico’s cultural heritage laws. Despite Mexico's calls to halt the sale, the auction took place as planned on Monday (3 April).