Hunt for the Codex Cardona

A retired UC Davis history professor turns detective, attempts to solve mystery of a missing Mexican treasure

Retired UC Davis professor Arnold Bauer holds open a copy of the Codex Mendoza, a document of the same type as the Codex Cardona.

Retired UC Davis professor Arnold Bauer holds open a copy of the Codex Mendoza, a document of the same type as the Codex Cardona.

Photo By mike iredale

Meet the real-life version of Robert Langdon, the professorial mystery-solving hero of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novels such as The Da Vinci Code.

He’s a retired professor of Latin American history at UC Davis, a white-haired, scholarly gent who grows a couple of varieties of grapes in his personal vineyard in rural Yolo County. No one has ever threatened his life or attempted to murder him, and he’s never been pursued through the narrow streets of an ancient city by thuggish fanatics bent on stopping his pursuit of knowledge. But he’s been on the case of the Codex Cardona, a manuscript that contains information about Mexico in the period before and immediately after the European invasion, for the last 25 years.

“It’s a treasure,” Arnold Bauer said of the Codex Cardona. “And it’s a mystery.”

Bauer has written a book, recently published by Duke University Press, about his attempt to solve that mystery. The Search for the Codex Cardona: On the Trail of a Sixteenth-Century Mexican Treasure, revolves around his efforts to learn where the codex came from and who currently has it.

Bauer saw the Codex Cardona just once, in 1985 at the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at UC Davis, where it had been brought for authentication. The Crocker Lab has the ability to do radiocarbon dating on artifacts.

“It was amazing,” Bauer said. The Codex Cardona was made up of 427 folio pages on amate, the bark paper made by the Aztecs before the arrival of the Europeans. It had more than 350 painted drawings, all detailed, and it was annotated throughout in the Spanish of the clergy who accompanied the invasion of Mexico. It’s not so much that the Codex Cardona was full of new information, he said, but that it contained so much information. It supplemented what was known from other, more famous codices and had “more details to add about day-to-day life both before and immediately after the European conquest.”

The Codex Cardona was simply packaged. The folios were, Bauer described, “bound with a sort of fiberboard and tied with string.”

“The guy had a fiberboard suitcase propped up against the wall, and he lifted it up from the suitcase and plopped it on a steel table” in the Crocker Lab, he said.

If this was a best-selling novel or a blockbuster movie, Bauer would have gone on a wild chase involving antiquities dealers, rare-booksellers and auctioneers, probably falling in love along the way, and been threatened and assaulted by the bad guys. Instead, he learned a great deal about the difficulties of selling an antiquity of unknown origin, the problems of fraud in the antiquities trade and of the lengths the owners of such pieces will go to in order to avoid turning a cultural artifact over to national authorities.

“I did write a novel about it. The draft is over there,” he told SN&R during an interview at his rural Davis home. “But the true story really is interesting enough.”

It all began with the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 1500s. The Spaniards found a vibrant culture that included papermaking and professional scribes. The native Mexicans “didn’t have a written language,” Bauer said. “They had glyphs—pictorial writing—but there was no alphabet.” Still, they compiled extensive written records of civic matters, such as the amount of tribute owed and paid to rulers, as well as their native cosmology, the stories of their gods and worship practices.

“The Catholic clergy destroyed many of the pre-conquest documents, because they showed pictures of the native gods and rites,” said Bauer. But, he pointed out, “One of the great ironies is that the Spanish invaders were so destructive, but there were also lots of people among them who were genuinely interested in the cultures they were encountering.” In spite of the Spaniards’ intolerance of native religions, there was a genuine curiosity about this new culture so very different from their own. “They were interested in the cultural and social makeup of the people before they arrived, but determined to eradicate any remnant of the religion in place at the time they arrived,” said Bauer. “What a contradiction.”

This contradictory desire led to the production of the codices, including the Codex Cardona. “They called in the scribes—there were hundreds of them in Mexico who were specialists in doing this—and they said, ‘Draw pictures for us of what it was like before.’” Like the well-known Codex Mendoza, the Codex Cardona was commissioned by the first viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, and was intended to describe the land, culture and people for the Spanish king, Charles V.

“Viceroy Mendoza ordered Captain Cardona to make the Codex Cardona,” said Bauer, and there the mystery begins. “If it was commissioned at the highest level of the Mexican colonial government, then it would normally be sent to Spain, like the Codex Mendoza was, or like the Codex Telleriano-Remensis was.”

Those similar documents were also composed by Aztec scribes, supervised and annotated by Catholic clergy, and intended for a royal readership. “They were packed down to Veracruz and sent across the Atlantic,” he said. But neither of the known codices had an easy trip. “One of them was captured by a French pirate ship and lost.” Bauer said. That one, the Codex Mendoza, eventually ended up at Oxford University in the Bodleian Library. Another had, as Bauer said, “a very strange trajectory.” But his point is that, as documents created for official Spanish use, they were both in the custody of Spaniards and crossed the Atlantic.

That’s not what happened to the Codex Cardona. The first big mystery Bauer noted—and the one he’s never been able to solve—is what happened to the Codex Cardona between its composition in the mid-16th century and its first public appearance in the early 1980s.

So Bauer turned detective.

He made a point of keeping track of the Codex Cardona. He interviewed everyone who had considered buying it: representatives of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Southern California, Stanford University, Sotheby’s auction house in London. When it was offered for consignment at Christie’s in 1998, the scholar who authenticated it for the auction house contacted Bauer, because his interest in it was well-known. Every time the Codex Cardona was offered for sale anonymously, it raised red flags in the world of antiquities collectors and dealers.

Bauer’s book details his efforts to track down the history of the document, as well as its current owner. There was a false lead that he followed to the Princeton University Library, which started with a letter that claimed a history for the Codex Cardona that had it in Europe from the 17th century. Bauer also tracked down a couple of rare-book dealers in Mexico City—they’re given pseudonyms in his book, since they refused to talk to him if identified—who provide a variety of stories about the origins of the document.

Most of them lied to him.

A photograph of a folio page of the Codex Cardona, believed to have been taken in 1985. This page from the mid-16th-century document shows Maria Bartohla, a Christianized Aztec, writing.

PHOTO Courtesy of Arnold Bauer/Guillermo Gutiérrez Esquivel

“Everybody lies,” he said, “because objects like the Codex Cardona are part of the nation’s cultural heritage.” Bauer has no doubt that the document is authentic and that it was in Mexico until put up for sale in the 1980s.

“It’s the property of the Mexican state,” he said. “But if it could be shown that it had been in the possession of a Spaniard, or of the ‘gentleman from London,’ then they could argue, well, it passed into my family’s possession 300 years ago and it’s not really Mexican, it’s Spanish, it’s something else.” That’s why provenance, or a history of an object or antiquity, is so important. Who has had possession of an artifact is as important as where it came from in determining whether it can be legitimately sold.

Bauer pointed to the current controversy surrounding the Getty Museum, one of the potential buyers for the Codex Cardona during the 1980s. The Getty currently has a piece called the “Victorious Youth”—also called the “Getty Bronze”—that an Italian court has recently ordered returned to Italy in the latest of a number of legal disputes about ownership of the piece. It’s only one of a number of recent incidents in which museums and private collectors have been accused of purchasing works of unknown history that rightfully belong to others, usually the nation of origin.

Some of the explanations for the origin of the Codex Cardona that Bauer was given by the people involved with it, Bauer said, were obviously attempts “to construct an origin, a provenance for it, as British or Spanish,” he said. “They were trying to get around the legal entanglements. That’s the only reason that they tried to cook up a history for it.”

Another explanation for the Codex Cardona’s origins that Bauer explored during one of his many trips to Mexico was the claim by one of the book dealers that it had been purchased in pieces from Mexican villagers.

“The bookseller I call Medina [in the book], he told me that it came from ‘out there,’” said Bauer. When pressed, he told Bauer it had come from one of the villages in the valley of Mexico. “He said he got it a few pages at a time over two years.”

Bauer wasn’t buying it. He’s not that gullible.

“That’s a completely implausible story,” he said. “If I was a rare-book dealer and somebody brought me 12 pages of this”—he held up color photographs of pages from the Codex Cardona—“I’d say, ‘Let me see all of them! I’ll pay you more!’” Bauer huffed at the very idea. “I certainly wouldn’t wait for more, especially when whoever had them might sell them elsewhere.”

Another possibility is that the man who tried to sell the Codex Cardona in the United States, a man we’ll call the Architect, found it himself. The Architect was involved in redeveloping Mexico City, both demolishing and restoring the original structures. With all that excavation, “he could have found it there,” Bauer said. “It’s not impossible. It might have been found in some convent where it was made in the 16th century.”

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why a document created for the Spanish king never left Mexico. It’s more likely than the version both the Architect and the bookseller Medina put forth about the Codex Cardona coming from a Mexican village, though, which Bauer dismissed out of hand. “It doesn’t make sense to anyone who’s ever seen a peasant hut in a village in the valley of Mexico. It wouldn’t be found in a village, unspoiled.”

If the mystery of where the Codex Cardona was for 400 years is puzzling, that’s easily matched by the mystery of what happened to it after it was shown to Christie’s in 1998.

It disappeared.

Bauer was able to determine that the Codex Cardona belonged to the Architect, and that he’d had it until 1998. But the Architect was strapped for cash, and made an agreement with a well-known Mexican antiquities dealer to unload the document for a fire-sale price. This dealer—along with a Spanish antiquities dealer and a female colleague—was commissioned by the Architect to sell the Codex Cardona on consignment at Christie’s. They were to pay the Architect $1.8 million; anything above that was theirs to keep. The Mexican antiquities dealer was also promised a $50,000 fee for security. “Which probably meant taking it through customs,” Bauer said.

But Christie’s rejected the consignment. Bauer’s investigation showed that a Christie’s employee called the person who had offered it to come and pick it up, and someone did pick it up.

But the Codex Cardona hasn’t been seen since.

The Architect says that the Mexican antiquities dealer stole the Codex Cardona. Their feud over the missing artifact has included Web postings (since removed, but Bauer has copies), a confrontation in a Mexico City apartment that may or may not have involved fisticuffs and drug-gang gunmen.

But still no Codex Cardona.

The Mexican antiquities dealer told Bauer that the Spanish dealer had taken the Codex Cardona to Madrid, Spain, and sold it to a collector who owned a chain of Spanish hotels. And Bauer has located an antiquities shop in Madrid owned by this dealer, but he’s been unable to go to Spain to further investigate. He doesn’t get around as well as he once did.

The Codex Cardona had a lot to offer: academic knowledge, yes, but also a sense of what Mexico was like when the Spanish invaded. It even contains a painting that shows Hernán Cortés carrying a corner of his wife’s casket in a funeral procession.

“Cortés likely murdered her, you know,” said Bauer. There is information about the suspicious death of the conquistador’s wife in the Codex Cardona as well. “It occurred the night of a party, and she was found dead in the aftermath of that. Her string of pearls was broken and she was blue in the face, so the conclusion there was that she had been strangled. There was a trial.”

And because it’s real life instead of The Da Vinci Code, it’s still a mystery, as is the location of the Codex Cardona.

“The mystery is still to be solved,” said Bauer.