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Mystery of the Maya Facade Volume 53 Number 5, September/October 2000
by David Freidel

Astute detective work gives new meaning to a looted artwork.


The Mexico City facade as it currently appears in the National Museum of Anthropology.
(Jorge Pérez de Lara, Courtesy the Instituto Nacional de Anthropología e Historia)

In 1968, New York antiquities dealer Everett Rassiga arranged a spectacular coup. Looters working in the jungle of Campeche in southeastern Mexico had notified their East Coast contact of the existence of a magnificent painted stucco facade decorated with the well-preserved face of a young Maya king wearing the distinctive flanged crown of royalty. According to the looters, the facade graced a temple or palace at a little-known site known as Placeres some 35 miles east of the Late Classic (A.D. 600-900) Maya metropolis of Calakmul. Flanking the king were images of old gods, each of whom held a carved Maya glyph in his left hand. The whole facade had been carefully buried, most likely during what Mayanists call a "termination ritual," a ceremonial "closing" of an important building. Rassiga arranged for the facade to be flown to New York for sale.

The facade entered the art market just as the Metropolitan Museum of Art was planning Before Cortés, a blockbuster exhibition of Precolumbian art. Rassiga approached the Met's director, Thomas P.F. Hoving, about acquiring the piece for the exhibition. Hoving turned it down, choosing instead to notify his counterpart, Ignacio Bernal, at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Rassiga owned a house in Cuernavaca, and, with the cooperation of Mexican authorities, Bernal made him an offer: give up his house or return the facade. The dealer chose the house, and the looted masterpiece of Early Classic (A.D. 250-600) Maya architectural art was flown to Mexico City, where it was restored and put on display in the museum's Maya hall.

The man who had been sent to oversee the clearing, cutting, and shipping of the facade to New York had taken a series of color photographs documenting the looting process, including images of the intact facade in situ. In the mid-1980s, I obtained copies of the photographs from a colleague who, as an expert in Mesoamerican art, had been shown the facade when it was for sale in New York. Though my colleague declined to purchase it, he was allowed to retain the photographs for study. My copies, which in time would provide critical information about the meaning of the facade--that it depicted an important meeting between two Maya kings--would languish in a file for more than a decade.

David Freidel of Southern Methodist University co-authored Forest of Kings and Maya Cosmos with the late Linda Schele.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America