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What happened to all the art in Mexico’s presidential palace?

A largely emptied Los Pinos opened to the public on 1 December, leaving many in the country wondering where the collection of paintings and decorative objects went

Visitors take photos inside the former presidential office at Los Pinos in Mexico City AP Photo/Ginnette Riquelme

In the weeks since Mexico’s popular new president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador made good on his promise to open the official residence to the public after taking office on 1 December, hundreds of thousands of people have streamed through the gates of Los Pinos. Estimated to be 14 times larger than the US White House, the grandiose property had been closed to the public for decades and was believed to house a large collection of art, furniture and decorative objects. But what visitors found when they entered was perhaps more surprising than long hidden treasures: bare walls.

“There’s no artwork, nothing,” says Elba Gutierrez, a resident of Mexico City who visited on the Day of the Virgin a Guadalupe (12 December), a bank holiday. “They even took the plates.”

Based on government inventories The Art Newspaper viewed in November, the presidential collection at Los Pinos included oil paintings by well-known Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo and José Clemente Orozco. Around 63 works formed part of the permanent collection, while another 103 works were lent to the palace from public collections.

But beyond a prominently displayed 1948 portrait of the Mexican revolutionary Venustiano Carranza by Siquieros, and a 1998 oil painting entitled Valle de Mexico by Luis Nishizawa, however, only a smattering of smaller paintings are currently on view in the palace. In a letter sent to the new culture secretary Alejandra Frausto on 4 December and shared with The Art Newspaper, the artists Francisco Toledo, Sergio Hernandez and Irma Palacios ask: “Knowing that the residence of Los Pinos has become part of our national patrimony, we’re wondering if it’s possible to know the location of the paintings done in 1993 for said residence.”

In 1993, the former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari noted a lack of nationally emblematic works in the palace. So he acquired paintings from some of Mexico’s best known artists, including Juan Soriano, Julio Galan, Francisco Toledo, Luis Nishizawa, Gunther Gerzso, and many others. The additions to the collection were necessary, Salinas wrote in a catalogue of the Los Pinos painting collection, “to replace the works exhibited temporarily at the residence that belong to the National Institute of Fine Arts.”

Antonio Marvel, a spokesman for the new ministry of culture, which now oversees the residence, says that many of the loaned works were returned to the country’s fine arts museums and treasury before former President Enrique Peña Nieto left office. “We’re currently undergoing a process of formal, legal receipt [of the property] during which there are 30 days for them [the previous government] to account for inventory and understand where everything is,” Marvel says. “We simply opened it exactly as it we got it, at midnight on 1 December.”

Ana Garduño, an art historian at Mexico’s National Institute for Fine Arts, says the works may be stored in warehouses or at another government residence once occupied by the former president Manuel Avila Camacho and his wife. But Garduño adds: “We might never know when they were taken and in what era,” especially considering the long history of government graft. “Every administration brought things in and took out others.”

During the seven-decade rule of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ended in 2000 with the election of former president Vicente Fox, many office holders were known to receive art in exchange for political favours, Garduño says. She adds that high-level politicians would make wish lists after visiting art galleries and antique stores “in case someone was interested in giving them a gift for their birthdays or Christmas”.

“The truth is speculation,” Marvel says, although he would not discount the possibility that some works could have been removed from the residence. In a joint statement issued this week about the missing collection, the Office of the President, the culture ministry and the ministry of public administration say that a full audit will be done in 2019 of the “disposal procedures, donations and transfers that have been carried out with respect to [Los Pinos] assests”.

For now, guests at the palace remain by turns confused, excited and awed as they walk across the grounds of Los Pinos. Some stroll into the office of the former presidents, where they see only a simple desk, a chair and rows of mostly empty bookshelves. Others stop to look at a Ford 1972 convertible used in the presidential motorcade. “I would’ve liked them to leave [more] furniture,” says one visitor, Jorge Enrique Urreña Fuentes. “It would have been very interesting.”