January 18, 2011

Montezuma's Headdress Could Be Coming Home

Montezuma's Headdress
Original headdress (Museum of Ethnology, Vienna)

It has taken three years of long negotiation, on top of decades of lobbying and centuries of wishful thinking. Now that is drawing to a conclusion: the headdress, believed to have belonged to the last Aztec king, might be returning to Mexico. So many of these treasures were taken from the country, during the Spanish conquest, that only reproductions remain. Now Mexicans may finally get the chance to see the original.

The headdress was removed from the country, during the 16th century, by Spanish conquistadors. Curios from the New World were big business then, as connoisseurs scrambled to see and understand what was being discovered so far overseas. Artifacts could be used in politics and religion, justifying the taking of land from apparently barbaric, Pagan people. Priests could hold up siezed icons to illustrate cautionary sermons about sympathizing with Satan. Alternatively, items could be bought by collectors, to be displayed as novelties.

Montezuma's Headdress
Reproduction headdress (Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City)

This particular Aztec headdress had found its way, by 1575, into the private collection of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria. Ferdinand was the son of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, and the younger brother of Maximilian II. He controlled substantial territories of his own, but even the vast revenue from those couldn't match his appetite for purchasing art. He died leaving huge debts, but also a famous collection in Castle Ambras, Tyrol, Austria. Amongst them was a horde of priceless Mexican antiquities.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the treasures of Castle Ambras were deposited in the Museum of Ethnology, in Vienna, Austria. European experts rushed in to examine the artifacts, finding particular fascination in the headdress. However, all of them believed that it was a mantle. It was left to a visiting US anthropologist, Zelia Nuttall, to explain its real function. She also identified it as being from Quetzalapanecayotl Palace.

Montezuma's Headdress
Artist's impression of Montezuma wearing the headdress

Whether the headdress had been attributed as belonging to Montezuma before is debatable, but it certainly was afterwards. Montezuma (aka Moctezuma II) was the most famous of Aztec rulers. He lived in the city that later became Mexico City; and did so at the time of the Spanish conquest. There is no actual proof that the headdress ever belonged to him. But it could well have. The headdress was taken from the right place, at the right time. Anyway, its designation, as Montezuma's headdress, added a layer of intrigue that brought in the European crowds to view its exhibition. In Mexico, it is also commonly called Penacho de Moctezuma.

quetzalquémitlMexican historians have an different interpretation. They believe that it may have been worn by a priest. It's been suggested that it may have been a mantle all along. Called a quetzalquémitl (feather cape), it would have transformed the priest into a living embodiment of the God, Quetzalcoátl. It is to examine it more closely, so that these questions may be addressed, which is the main impetus for asking for its return.

The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have been locked in talks, for the past three years, with their counterparts in the Austrian government and Kunsthistorisches Museum officials. The Museum of Ethnology, where the headdress is currently on display, is under the jurisdiction the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Mexico's President Felipe Calderon has been personally involved in the negotiations.

Carriage of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

As a gesture of good-will, the headdress will be exchanged for a golden stagecoach used by Mexican Emperor Maximilian. He was a member of the Austrian royal family. However, the Austrians have made it quite clear that the exchange is a temporary loan. Sabine Haag, director of Kunsthistorisches Museum, told an Austrian radio show that the headdress belongs in Austria.

We understand of course that the Penacho has a deep symbolic and spiritual meaning for Mexico's native population, and we are therefore in the process of coming up with conservation measures in order to store and exhibit it as part of Austria's and Mexico's cultural heritage.
Sabine Haag, on Radio Oe1

The final stretch of the talks are centring on how to transport both the headdress and the stagecoach, with due regard to legalities of both countries. Then experts need only to address the practicalities of sending such historically precious treasures halfway across the world.


  1. i think it belongs to Mexico and should be returned.

  2. It belongs to the Mexican culture, and It is only right that it be returned from where it was taken.

  3. get it sent back to mexico!

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