The events that unfold in the incident begins in 1976 when Thomas K Seligman, the then curator-in-charge of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas for the museum, is informed about the bequeathing. He is shown Mr Wagner’s handwritten will stated that the deceased ‘hoped’ that the museum would pay all costs for settling his estate in return for the priceless murals.
Mr Seligman is informed the museum’s lawyer said that this would give rise to certain ethical and legal problems with Mexico, the original source of the murals. A temporary solution was arrived at when Crocker Bank who was in charge of the assets of Mr Wagner and the other legatees agreed that the murals may be kept in the museum until a more permanent solution was arrived at.
What follows next is an example of successful international negotiation that was to last for the next ten years. The problem referred to by the lawyer came about because in 1972, four years before the incident, the UNESCO had passed the “Convention on the. Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.” Its implications were relevant here because it was not sure whether the murals had been on American soil with the permission of the Mexican Government. This was further complicated by a treaty between the Mexican and US Governments called the “Treaty of Cooperation Providing for the Recovery and Return of Stolen Archaeological, Historical and Cultural Properties between the United States of America and the United Mexican States.” The treaty gives special mention to wall art and there is no doubt as to the fact that murals are classified as wall art. Lengthy discussions were done with historians, other museums and lawyers followed and what ultimately became clear was that no relevant precedents existed.