D.A. Bragg Announces Return of Antiquity From the Olmec Civilization To The People of Mexico

August 3, 2023

Pictured: “Olmec Cave Mask”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., announced today the return of an extraordinarily rare Olmec Cave Mask crafted between 800 – 400 B.C.E in Mexico. The monumental sculpture represents the ancient Olmec jaguar god Tepeyollotlicuhti, depicted as a feline with large oval eyes, flaring nostrils, and a gaping mouth. Representing of the passage to the afterworld, the hulking Olmec Cave Mask guarded the entrance to a ceremonial cave at the archaeological site Chalcatzingo, Mexico. The return of the Olmec Cave Mask marked the conclusion of a complex, multi-year investigation conducted by the Office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit with Homeland Security Investigations-New York and the unwavering support of Jorge Islas Lopez, Consul General of Mexico in New York. Through the exceptional cooperation and assistance of Mexican Consul General Islas, the Olmec Cave Mask was seized in May and returned to Mexico City in July.

“This incredible, ancient piece is a rare window into the past of Olmec society,” said District Attorney Bragg. “Like many other looted antiquities, the Olmec Cave Mask was broken into several different pieces to make the smuggling process simpler. After being sent to different museums and private collections across the United States for nearly 60 years, the Cave Mask can finally return to sit with the rest of its companion monuments. This repatriation would not have been possible without the incredible partnership and assistance of the Mexican Consul General, and we thank him for his coordination every step of the way.” 

“Thanks to the coordinated efforts with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, el Monstruo de la Tierra returns to México; where it rightfully belongs and from where it should never have been removed. Our most sincere gratitude and recognition for the work of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit’s team. Our collaboration serves as a symbol of friendship and mutual respect between the United States and Mexico for the rule of law and our cultural heritage,” said Consul General Jorge Islas López. 

“HSI New York is honored to return this ancient Olmec Relief Jaguar Head, known as the “Portal to the Underworld,” to the people of Mexico. The Olmec Civilization – considered the “mother culture” of many other cultures that appeared in the region in later years such as the Maya and Zapotec – was one of the most influential ancient civilizations of the early Americas, so the historical and cultural significance of this Olmec Relief are without measure. I would like to give special thanks to HSI Denver for their support in the recovery of this national treasure. I am proud of HSI New York’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Group and our partners for their unwavering commitment to ensuring these priceless artifacts find their way home,” said HSI New York SAC Ivan J. Arvelo

The mystery of the missing Olmec Cave Mask had vexed archaeologists for decades. Archaeologists at Chalcatzingo had noted a -missing “Monument 9”—the space left by the stolen Olmec Cave Mask.  In fact, the ATU’s investigation revealed that in the early 1960s, the intricately carved Olmec Cave Mask was looted from Chalcatzingo, a Mesoamerican archaeological site, located near Morelos, Mexico. Looters intentionally broke the 2,000 pound artifact into 15 pieces to facilitate loading the pieces onto a truck and smuggling them out of Mexico. By 1965, the Olmec Cave Mask had arrived in New York and was offered for sale by an individual involved with directing the looting. Over the next half century, the Olmec Cave Mask was loaned to multiple museums, including the Met, and was most recently sold to a private collector. 

During District Attorney Bragg’s tenure, the ATU has recovered nearly 850 antiquities stolen from 27 countries and valued at over $170 million. Since its creation, the ATU has recovered over 4,500 antiquities stolen from 30 countries and valued at over $390 million. Under District Attorney Bragg, the ATU has also repatriated more than 950 antiquities stolen from 19 countries and valued at more than $180 million. Since its creation, the ATU has returned more than 2,475 antiquities to 25 countries, collectively valued at more than $250 million. 

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, Chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit and Senior Trial Counsel, supervised the investigation, which was conducted by Assistant District Attorney James Edwards-Lebair; Supervising Investigative Analyst Apsara Iyer, Investigative Analyst Allison Stacy; and Special Agent Megan Buckley of Homeland Security Investigations.