An ancient Maya temple facade that was looted from the jungle in the 1960s and once offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is undergoing restoration by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
Dating to approximately 450–600 CE, the 30-foot-long, two-ton stucco relief is believed to depict either a maize god or an unknown governor. The figure is shown in a feathered headdress flanked by two elder gods holding symbolic glyphs. The piece was believed to be intentionally buried by the Maya and was later extracted from the Late Classic archaeological site Placeres around 1968.
Placeres was discovered among the Campeche jungles by American archaeologist and government spy Sylvanus Morley in the 1940s. Morley spearheaded significant field work in Mexico and Central America, including some of the first excavations at the renowned Maya site Chichén Itzá from the 1920s through the late 1940s.
Conservators, whose efforts on the stucco relief began in 2018, are currently working to piece the fragments together and remove a protective polymer that looters had applied to prevent disintegration. That process included stabilizing the relief using a metal framework. The team hopes to restore the frieze as close as possible to its original polychrome.
Traffickers provided in-situ photographs to antiquities dealer Everett Rassiga, according to historical records. The work was subsequently offered by Rassiga to Mexico-based collector Josué Sáenz who declined. (Sáenz was also later connected to a high-profile art trafficking case on the Grolier Codex, an astronomical Maya calendar.)
Believing he could still sell the piece, Rassiga had the facade cut into 48 pieces, priced at $400,000, and shipped to the Met. Thomas Hoving, then-director of the Met, also refused the work and alerted Mexican authorities. In 1969, the work was sent to Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA), where it is still held today.
The restoration project is being carried out in public view at MNA and is slated to be finished by December 2023.