Cultural Heritage TraffickingNews

Artworks seized and returned to Mexican Embassy

The Australian Border Force (ABF) has intercepted the entry of two protected cultural objects from Mexico: a pre-Hispanic Mixtec copper bowl and a 100-year-old votive painting, both of which were returned to the Mexican Government today.

Minister for the Arts, the Hon Tony Burke MP, handed over the objects to His Excellency Mr Eduardo Peña Haller, Ambassador of Mexico, during a ceremony in Canberra this morning.

Australian residents purchased the objects online from a US-based company before ABF officers detected the items upon arrival in Australia.

Concerned about the lack of export documentation for the objects, ABF officers referred them to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts for investigation under the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986.

The Department consulted with the Embassy of Mexico, and the Government of Mexico submitted a formal repatriation request. The bowl was seized in Sydney, and the votive painting in Perth in 2022.

Acting Assistant Secretary of the ABF’s Customs and Trade Policy Branch, Joshua Hutton, said ABF officers are trained to detect a wide range of prohibited goods, including protected cultural heritage objects significant to a nation’s identity such as antiquities, art, fossils, historical documents, and numismatic material.

“We are incredibly proud of the highly specialised skills of our officers, which not only help keep Australia’s borders safe but also protect the cultural heritage of other nations,” Mr Hutton said.

“We’re delighted that these priceless objects have been returned to the people of Mexico through the Embassy of Mexico here in Australia.”

The Australian Government is committed to the protection of Australian and international cultural property, which is upheld under law. Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970.

Mr Hutton reminded Australians to be careful when buying art or historical objects, no matter in what country or era they might have been created.

“Art collectors should always verify the provenance of any cultural works they acquire overseas, whether online or in person. Many countries have laws that regulate the export of cultural property, and it may be illegal to export the goods without the correct permit,” he said.

About the returned objects:

  • The 5x3cm bowl was crafted by the Mixtec people during the Mesoamerican Post-classic period (1200-1521), and is decorated with a feathered serpent motif.
  • The 1923 ex-voto (or votive) painting depicts the story of a mining accident survivor who, after 52 days of pain and with no signs of recovery, asked the Virgin of the Rosary of Charcas for relief. The painting was commissioned by the man as a sign of gratitude to the Virgin.