United States Attorney

Southern District of New York

For Immediate Release
February 24, 1999
Contact: U.S. Attorney's Office Marvin Smilon, Herbert Hadad
Public Information Office
(212) 637-2600
Evan T. Barr
(212) 637-2551

Press Release

MARY JO WHITE, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that an 18th -century manuscript seized by the Government from Sotheby's has been ordered forfeited to the United States for eventual return to the Mexican National Archives. The forfeiture order was issued late last week by United States District Court Judge LORETTA A. PRESKA under a 1983 federal law known as the Cultural Property Implementation Act.

According to the court's decision awarding summary judgment to the Government, the manuscript, which is dated 1778 and bears the original signature of Fray Junipero Serra, a missionary and soldier, was stolen from the Mexican National Archives. According to the decision, the manuscript was subsequently acquired in 1992 at a Mexico City flea market for approximately $300 by a Mexico City book, coin, and manuscript dealer named Duane Douglas. Douglas testified in court proceedings that he did not inquire about the manuscript's provenance at the time of purchase.

In 1993, the court opinion states, Douglas brought the manuscript into the United States without declaring it to Customs officials, and kept it in a safe at his daughter's home in Los Angeles. In early 1996, according to the court opinion, Douglas showed the manuscript to Dana Toft, a Chicago collector. Toft testified in court proceedings that Douglas told him he had acquired the manuscript from a private collection in Mexico which had been dispersed in the early 1970's. Subsequently, in March 1996, according to the court's opinion, Toft agreed to purchase the manuscript from Douglas for $16,000 in cash.

The court opinion states that in June 1996, Toft consigned the manuscript to Sotheby's in New York for auction at an estimated price of $20,000 to $30,000. The manuscript failed to meet its minimum bid at auction, and remained at Sotheby's on consignment for private sale. According to the court's order, later in June 1996, Bryan Nerone, a Los Angeles dealer in rare manuscripts, contacted officials at the Mexican National Archives and informed them that he had seen the manuscript in a Sotheby's catalog, and became suspicious that it might belong to the Archives after conducting research on the item's provenance.

According to the court's opinion, officials at the Mexican National Archives then began an investigation on the manuscript's whereabouts. As early as 1956, according to the court's opinion, the manuscript had been reported by a scholarly authority to be contained in the Archives' collection. The officials also confirmed that the manuscript appeared in the Archives' microfilm records. According to the court's opinion, the Archives officials ultimately determined that the manuscript had been removed from a bound volume at the Archives containing documents relating to California. In July 1996, the Mexican Government submitted a formal request to the United States Government seeking assistance in recovering the manuscript.

Shortly thereafter, the United States filed a civil complaint in Manhattan federal court seeking to forfeit the manuscript for the purpose of returning it to the Republic of Mexico. The complaint was brought under the Cultural Property Implementation Act, a federal law enacted in 1983 to prevent international trade in stolen cultural property. The court, in awarding summary judgment on the complaint in favor of the Government, found that the manuscript had been stolen from the Archives and that Toft, the Chicago collector who claimed ownership of the manuscript in the court proceedings, had failed to prove that he was without knowledge or reason to believe the item was stolen and therefore was not entitled to any compensation under the Act.

Ms.WHITE thanked the United States Customs Service for its investigation of this case.

Assistant United States Attorney EVAN T. BARR is in charge of the case.


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