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  HOME | Mexico

Black-Market Antiquities Turned Over to Mexican Government

By Laura Gonzalez de Artaza

XOCHICALCO, MEXICO The Leoff-Vinot collection, made up of more than 8,100 pre-Columbian pieces bought on the black market, was presented here Tuesday by its new owner, Mexico's National Anthropology and History Institute, or INAH.

Considered to be the most important antiquities collection in Mexico in private hands due to the number and age of the pieces, some of them more than 3,000 years old, the items will be catalogued and researched in the archaeological zone of Xochicalco, located in the central state of Morelos.

Among the pieces in the collection are an offering box with an engraving of the emblem of Aztlan, possibly of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), and two Toltec monoliths with the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl emerging from the jaws of a serpent, each of which weighs 500 pounds.

The collection belonged to the late Milton A. Leoff, a U.S. dentist who in the 1930s invented an innovative method in his specialty that made him rich.

Leoff moved to Mexico with his wife, where he pursued an interest in pre-Columbian art and acquired most of the pieces between 1940 and 1960 on the black market after they had been looted from ruins throughout Latin America.

One proof of the illicit acquisition of the pieces can be seen on a Campeche stele that shows the marks of the power saw used to remove it from its original location, presumably in ancient ruins.

In 1972, before the promulgation of a Mexican federal law on the country's historic patrimony, Leoff registered and documented most of his collection with the pieces' origins, years of recovery and acquisition and photographs, thus making them legal.

Two weeks ago, his widow, Nadie Vinot, donated the complete collection to INAH because of the sale of the house where they were housed downtown in the city of Cuernavaca.

Vinot asked that the pieces be kept together and not leave Mexico except for exhibition.

INAH Morelos center director Eduardo Lopez said that after being catalogued and researched over the course of this year, the pieces will be included in an exposition that will illustrate the history of private collecting in the country.

The head of the Xochicalco archaeological zone, Marco Antonio Santos, emphasized the positive aspect of recovering the pieces, but lamented that because they are now removed from their original locations and context they have been deprived of archaeological value and reduced to art objects.

In addition, he admitted that some of the pieces were found to be "crudely glued with dentistry material."

The pieces - which include items of stone, stucco, ceramics, jade, cloth, wood, bone, shell, bronze, gold and silver - are representative items from the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec and Mexic cultures.

Included in the collection are human and animal figures, steles, incense holders, containers, vases, musical instruments, beads, arrowheads and paleontological material like a pair of molars that have still not been dated. EFE

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