The Search for the Codex Cardona

The Search for the Codex Cardona
Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: 8 page color insert Published: December 2009

Author: Arnold Bauer

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, History > Latin American History

In The Search for the Codex Cardona, Arnold J. Bauer tells the story of his experiences on the trail of a cultural treasure, a Mexican “painted book” that first came into public view at Sotheby’s auction house in London in 1982, nearly four hundred years after it was presumably made by Mexican artists and scribes. On folios of amate paper, the Codex includes two oversized maps and 300 painted illustrations accompanied by text in sixteenth-century paleography. The Codex relates the trajectory of the Nahua people to the founding of the capital of Tenochtitlán and then focuses on the consequences of the Spanish conquest up to the 1550s. If authentic, the Codex Cardona is an invaluable record of early Mexico. Yet there is no clear evidence of its origin, what happened to it after 1560, or even where it is today, after its last known appearance at Christie’s auction house in New York in 1998.

Bauer first saw the Codex Cardona in 1985 in the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, where scholars from Stanford and the University of California were attempting to establish its authenticity. Allowed to gently lift a few pages of this ancient treasure, Bauer was hooked. By 1986, the Codex had again disappeared from public view. Bauer’s curiosity about the Codex and its whereabouts led him down many forking paths—from California to Seville and Mexico City, to the Firestone Library in Princeton, to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Christie’s in New York—and it brought him in contact with an international cast of curators, agents, charlatans, and erudite book dealers. The Search for the Codex Cardona is a mystery that touches on issues of cultural patrimony, the workings of the rare books and manuscripts trade, the uncertainty of archives and evidence, and the ephemerality of the past and its remains.


The Search for the Codex Cardona seems in many respects to emulate the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco. . . . [T]he Borgesian vison of a universe of interconnected texts that make playthings of their writers and readers allows [Bauer] to take philosophical distance from this search adn transform it into a new and captivating text.” — Alan Durston, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies,

“[Bauer’s] had shaped him to be the ideal victim of what he came to feel as obsession, for which his charmingly written book serves as a kind of closure. A student of Latin American history and author of two books on his subject, he knew Mexico particularly well and at close hand. The 19 chapters of the tale he tells thoroughly embed the scholarly facts in a living world of librarians, antique book dealers, lawyers, charlatans, auctioneers, archaeologists, painters and artists, architects, gardeners, food sellers and restaurant owners, wine growers (wine is also an expertise of his) and the succulent marketplaces common to California and Mexico.” — Gordon Brotherston, Journal of Latin American Studies

“Bauer’s book reads like a mystery novel and will undoubtedly appeal to a wide audience. . . . The Codex Cardona has unfortunately disappeared again. . . . Arnold Bauer has effectively opened the door to reveal the Codex Cardona’s existence—now if only that door could remain ajar to allow for further study and consideration.” — Penny C. Morrill, Sixteenth Century Journal

“In this compelling and entertaining narrative, Arnold J. Bauer lifts the curtain to unveil the drama of our craft: the obsessions, fetishes, passionate curiosity, imagination, and speculation that shape our work. Most poignantly, Bauer captures the seductive power of our sources and our very human impulse to project all manner of desires, narratives, and (un)realities onto them.” — Yanna Yannakakis, s Ethnohistory

“This book is recommended to readers interested in the ancient civilizations of Mexico as well as to students of the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán.” — Colonial American Historical Review,

“This minx of a manuscript will get under many people’s skin. Bauer’s insatiable quest to trace the history of its ownership and recover the original manuscript is a totally sympathetic one. Ethnohistorians will wish him success in carrying the pursuit to a conclusion, if at all possible, and maybe the publication of this story will bring a crack in the case as more eyes are turned in its direction. . . . We must thank Arnold Bauer for bringing this manuscript to the forefront of our imaginations.” — Stephanie Wood, A Contracorriente

‘Part journal and part novel, The Search for the Codex Cardona is a tale of dogged persistence, forgeries, and the depths of the antiquities trade. . . . This could make good course reading: it's short, and direct and introduces students to the antiquities trade in a new way.” — Krystal D’Costa, Anthropology in Practice

[T]he Search for the Codex Cardona is a superbly written thriller, of which any novelist would be proud. Once you begin it you will not wish to be disturbed!”
— David J. Robinson, Journal of Latin American Geography

The Search for the Codex Cardona is an amusing, informative, and novelistic scholarly book. It develops its topic rapidly with concise and short sentences, which makes it easy to read. This book could serve undergraduate students and lay readers as an introduction to Mexican painted books and graduate students and scholars as an introduction to the virtually unknown and now lost Codex Cardona, a possibly invaluable source of information about the Aztecs. In this sense, The Search for the Codex Cardona makes a unique contribution in that it focuses not on an available scholarly resource but on one that has never been available and that may no longer exist.” — Jongsoo Lee, The Latin Americanist,

“[P]art mystery story, part fantasy and part history. . . . The book reads like a novel rather than a historical tract.” — Alan R. Sandstrom, Times Higher Education Supplement

“As in the best suspense novels, Bauer begins in the middle of the action. . . . His intriguingly conspiratorial tone enables the reader to be privy to his search for the answers to the scholarly riddles. . . . For readers who wish to learn about early contact-era Mexican painted manuscripts and how scholarly inquiry is conducted, this work has much to offer. It should also find a readership with those who like mystery mixed with their history and with readers who enjoy narratives on the search for lost rarities. . . .” — Library Journal,

“In 1985, in a private room in the Crocker Laboratory at the University of California at Davis, Bauer glimpsed a priceless antiquity: the Codex Cardona, a book painted by an Aztec scribe only a few years after Cortés’s arrival. . . . Bauer . . . passes through shady middlemen and well-connected connoisseurs (“Here in Mexico we can falsify anything,” one assures Bauer) in his quest to locate and authenticate the book. The Codex disappears; but during his hunt Bauer manages to convey Mexico’s odd and powerful charisma.” — Benjamin Moser, Harper’s

“One can sense the author’s fun in writing this work and his enjoyment in speculating on the countless explanations concerning ownership of the manuscript, its survival over the centuries, and its contemporary location. Veterans of archival work will particularly appreciate his attempts to discover more (or any) information about the numerous historical surprises within the Cardona. For other readers, however, the great merit of this book will be its struggle with the moral and ethical issues facing museums, libraries, and universities trying to build research collections and preserve records of the past. . . . For scholars of colonial Latin American history, what a story to enjoy ourselves and to present to our students to contemplate!” — James A. Lewis, Hispanic American Historical Review

“This book is a gripping tale of intrigue, contraband, covert operations, and a bit of conjecture. . . . In many ways it is a tale that many Latin American historians might dream of writing, about a chance encounter with a manuscript, a colorful character, or a hidden archive, but few of us ever do it. Bauer has.” — John F. Schwaller, The Americas

The Search for the Codex Cardona is a terrific read. I could hardly put it down. If the Codex is real, and I came to believe that it probably is authentic, then it is the most important document of the early colonial world to have come to light since the Florentine Codex surfaced in Italy in the late nineteenth century.” — Mary Miller, Dean of Yale College and author of The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Arnold J. Bauer is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of California, Davis.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

1. The Crocker Lab 1

2. A World of Painted Books 10

3. Early Doubts 24

4. Sotheby's of London 30

5. The Getty 41

6. Sloan Ranger 52

7. Nights in the Gardens of Coyoacan 63

8. A Mysterious Affidavit 72

9. Seville 78

10. Christie's of New York 88

11. El Palacio del Marqués 97

12. Librería Zócalo 104

13. An Internet Posting 117

14. The Architect's Studio 125

15. Pasaje de las Flores 139

16. The High End 146

17. Ibiza 153

18. A Madrid Anticuario 162

19. Resolution 167

Notes 171

Bibliography 173

Index 177
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4614-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4596-1
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