The odyssey of the “Frieze of Delights”, the huge piece of the Mayan pyramid stolen in the jungle 50 years ago

The odyssey of the “Frieze of Delights”, the huge piece of the Mayan pyramid stolen in the jungle 50 years ago

It is certainly one of the largest antiquities heists in Mesoamerica. “It would be like buying a piece of the Parthenon,” said one of the directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Joseph Veach Noble, upon seeing the loot of the great pleasure frieze, a magnificent and huge stucco relief from the Mayan Classic period – 8.39 meters long, 2.48 meters high and nearly two tons, depicts a young ruler flanked by two deified ancestors – stolen by an international group of art dealers who invaded the Campeche jungle in 1968 colossal piece torn into small fragments and attached to an electric saw, which she later airlifted to the United States to sell to the New York Met. Vain. The 48 pieces of the puzzle were repatriated to Mexico a year later, in 1969, after Thomas PF Hoving, then-director of the Met, refused to pay $400,000 for it and Ignacio Bernal, a famous archaeologist and director of the institute, about it had informed theft of anthropology and history. After 54 years of this mythical robbery, the Odyssey will finally culminate in December of this year 2022, after an ambitious restoration by the conservation project coordinator, the restorer Sergio González, with resources of the Board of Trustees of the National Museum of Anthropology and the Bank of America.

At the time of its extraction, the relief was covered with a layer of synthetic polymer, cloth and plaster of paris and later cut into 48 pieces that were packed in wooden boxes to be shipped to the city of New York United StatesAt the time of its extraction, the relief was covered with a layer of synthetic polymer, cloth and plaster of paris and later cut into 48 pieces that were packed in wooden boxes to be shipped to the city of New York United States United Monica Gonzalez Islands

Upon arrival in Mexico in 1969, the 48 parts of the facade were put together like a puzzle by the restorer Carlos Sigüenza. “Almost half of the surface has been replaced and only the relief stucco work is original, the restorer was unable to clean the polychrome or strip the piece of polymer. It left a whitish layer that prevented the original design from being seen. It had a very ugly finish: artificial and plasticky. This brings us to 2014, when the ambitious restoration began. Before that the piece didn’t attract any attention, it wasn’t known, its only merit was that it was stolen, that it went to New York and came back,” explains the restorer Sergio González in an interview with EL PAÍS.

The journalist Karl E. Meyer explains the kidnapping in detail in his book “The Plundering of the Past”: “He was a corrupt human trafficker. No one has done more to meet the demand for art than the man I shall call Henry Beta,” he wrote. Beta began operations in the 1940s. But in 1968 he pulled off one of his most daring robberies. He entered the little-explored jungle of Calakmul—one of the largest cities in the Maya world, rising in America’s second-largest conservation area, a World Heritage Site—to rip out the relief from a Mayan pyramid. The operation cost him more than $80,000. A Merida merchant organized a work group to build an airstrip at a Chiclero camp called Placeres. The thieves covered the relief with a polymer called Mowilith to keep it from decay, and to separate it from the rest of the structure they used electric saws which collided with stone pegs and the vibrations loosened part of the stucco. irreparable damage. The fragments, packed in 48 boxes, were shipped to New Orleans under false labels; then to New York. Never before have a band of dealers in pre-Columbian art dared so much. After the robbery, UNESCO would approve their Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage; The United States passed its own law to control the importation of pre-Columbian art into the country, and in 1972 Mexico promulgated its federal law on Monuments and Archaeological Zones to deter looting and preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.

Detail of the restoration of the frieze known as the Detail of the restoration of the frieze known as “Relieve de Pleasures” at the National Museum of AnthropologyMónica González Islas

“What we can see is that it wasn’t an improvised technique; people knew what he was doing and they had already thought about where to sell it,” explains conservator Sergio González, who has worked at the National Museum of Anthropology and History for 17 years. He presented the restoration project because he had noticed deterioration in the structure that supported the facade. “There was a risk that the pieces would fall and injure a visitor. At that moment we realized that there was a color behind the polymer that was visible. There was a polychromy that hasn’t been seen since the looting,” he explains. The specialists tried to remove the reddish tone and restore its original color, get rid of the salts accumulated in the main mask and save its iconography. The first step of the project, which involved experts from INAH and the UNAM Institute of Aesthetic Research, consisted of photographic documentation and chemical analysis of the materials and manufacturing technique. “The experts responsible for this phase – coordinated by the restorers Nora Pérez Castellanos and Armando Arciniega Corona – found that the pigments used in the polychromy of the relief are iron oxides in different degrees of oxidation for the red colors; soot for the characters’ pupils; and lime white for nails and other details in the eyes”. The structure was changed for a more stable and solid one, making the frieze so heavy that it was decided not to move it. Therefore, it was decided to carry out the restoration work in the room. The polymer was also purified. The second phase consisted of the structural stabilization of the piece, which involved the renovation of the metal frame that acts as a support. “Based on three-dimensional and volumetric calculations, we welded a new structure that supports each fragment with at least four supports” so that the two tons that the relief weighs rest on a stable frame. An advantage of the new structure is its mobile character, which facilitates the maintenance of the piece. The piece, already stable, underwent an extensive cleaning that took two years of work between 2020 and 2021 to completely remove the polymer with products developed by the researchers on this project.

At the time of its extraction, the relief was covered with a layer of synthetic polymer, cloth and plaster of paris and later cut into 48 pieces that were packed in wooden boxes to be shipped to the city of New York United States.At the time of its extraction, the relief was covered with a layer of synthetic polymer, cloth and plaster of paris and later cut into 48 pieces that were packed in wooden boxes to be taken to the city of New York United States United.Mónica González Islas

“We asked ourselves a lot of ethical questions, like what level we wanted the play to be on. We decided that we didn’t want it to look pretty, we wanted it to guarantee its durability over time. The purpose is to return the relief to the properties it had before it was stolen, including the damage caused by being outdoors. We want to show the marks of time, we don’t want to remove the marks of wear and tear,” explains González. The piece undergoes its final touches: cleaning, chromatic reintegration of the stains and replacements so that they are no more striking than the original reliefs. “Cleaning was the most challenging task as the polymer was difficult to remove after being stuck for 50 years and a special gel had to be developed for this process. Another difficult phase was that during the pandemic, two of our colleagues lost their lives, Jenny Ayala Cuevas and Felipe Coraza Arguijo. In addition, the work was stopped and then gradually resumed. The work was delayed by months due to the break,” says the restorer.

Detail of the restoration of the frieze.Detail of the restoration of the Mónica González Islas frieze

Thomas PF Hoving, director of the Met, wanted to celebrate the museum’s centenary in 1970 with the most ambitious exhibition of Mesoamerican cultures: “Before Cortés”. For years, members of the Met toured Europe and Latin America persuading reluctant owners to rent pieces for the show. In December 1968, the museum had to decide what to do with the temple’s facade, which was in its laboratory. Before a decision was made, members of the museum traveled to Mexico for a dinner. Among those present were the banker and collector Josué Sáenz and Dr. Ignacio Bernal. Sáenz said to Dudley T. Easby, the Met’s first chief of primitive arts, who suffered from emphysema: “People say that you don’t come by boat to Mexico for your health, but to rob our temples. They also say the black bag he’s carrying isn’t for medicine, it’s for the money he’s using to buy temples.” Easby didn’t respond. In New York, the decision was made to notify Ignacio Bernal, who soon arrived at the Metropolitan Museum to examine the loot. He identified the temple’s facade as Mexican property. A day later, Noble Henry called Beta and asked him to come to the museum. Unsuspecting, Beta arrived with the friendly demeanor of a trader about to close a big sale. Noble told Beta that not only would the museum not buy the temple, but it would return it to Mexico. Beta asked for a refund of the $80,000 it cost him to get the temple out of the jungle. “Do you mean that after you rob one of our temples, you want us to pay you for your expenses?” Beta was advised to accept the loss, bearing in mind that she could easily get into legal trouble in Mexico. The temple was repacked in about 60 boxes and left New York aboard a special flight operated by Mexico’s national airline.

Back of the Maya frieze during its restoration.  The structure will be custom made for the assembly of the piece in the Sala MayaBack of the Maya frieze during its restoration. The structure will be custom made for the assembly of the piece in the Sala MayaMónica González Islas

In December, the frieze, already restored, will be on display along with a video mapping projecting what the building decorated with it would have looked like. Sergio González hopes that this magnificent restoration will prompt the Institute of Anthropology and History to conduct an expedition and learn more about the history of the mysterious frieze: “I would say that the life of the Pleasures frieze is just beginning. We want our restoration to provide archaeologists and specialists with new information. Also that the public appreciates it. Because the piece impresses and causes a stir in everyone who sees it.”

Visitors to the Museum of Anthropology and History stop to watch the restoration of the pleasure frieze.Visitors to the Museum of Anthropology and History stop to watch the restoration of the pleasure frieze Mónica González Islas

Subscribe here to the EL PAÍS México newsletter and receive all the informative keys on current affairs in this country