Photo: / KHM with MVK and ÖTM
The 500-year-old headdress given by Moctezuma to Cortes won't be going home to Mexico. Photo: / KHM with MVK and ÖTM

This Aztec Headdress Came to Europe 500 Years Ago. It Can't Go Home

Rick Kearns

It was probably a gift from an Aztec Emperor to a conquistador, but it will have to stay in Austria.

In early June, experts announced that a 500-year old Aztec headdress, connected to the Emperor Moctezuma, could not be safely transported back to Mexico from Austria due to its fragile state.

The headdress has caused tension in the relationship between the two nations for over two decades. The Mexican government first made a formal request to Austria for the return of the headdress in 1991.  Many Mexicans saw it as an important part of the nation's cultural patrimony.  One scholar, Carlos Villanueva of the Iberoamerican University, recalled that award-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz said that on the day that the Penacho (headdress) returned to the country would mark a reunion with its cultural identity.

But an attempt to bring the headdress home to Mexico would likely destroy it, according to experts quoted in the recently released documentary, The Headdress of Moctezuma: The Feathered Art of Ancient Mexico.

In a speech at the film's opening on June 5th in Mexico City, Austria's Ambassador to Mexico Eva Hager quoted the film's authorities as saying that "with the technological means we have today it cannot be moved, it can't be transported without risks ... and that is the statement from a professor in the Technical University of Vienna and a professor from Mexico."

The Mexican investigator featured in the film is Maria Moreno Guzman, an experienced art restorer who specializes in the conservation of ancient feathered art in Mexico. Guzman noted that while the headdress is very fragile, "it is aging, not at an accelerated pace, let's call it a natural pace," and that "we can plan on it living another 500 years at least."

The large headdress, made of over 400 Quetzal feathers, many pieces of gold and other precious stones, has been on exhibit in the Weltmuseum, or Museum of the World (formerly the Ethnological Museum of Vienna).  Between 2010 and 2012, Guzman and Art Conservationist Renee Riedler of the Museum of the World in Vienna, led an extensive investigation into the creation of and the status of the headdress along with conducting a careful restoration of the ancient work so that it could be exhibited again in 2012 (it had been in storage for the previous eight years).

So far there has been no speculation as to when the headdress might return to Mexico, although historians have agreed to a probable sequence of events that led to its landing in Austria.

The headdress was given as a sign of respect; Aztec Emperor Moctezuma presented gifts to Conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1519, and among those objects was a beautiful headdress, according to historical records. Cortes sent the gifts back to his regent, Charles V of Spain who was part of the royal Habsburg family based in present day Austria; and in the ensuing 500 years, the headdress was lost, re-discovered and altered in efforts of restoration. 


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Nicomedes Castillo
Nicomedes Castillo
Submitted by Nicomedes Castillo on
Xokonoschtletl Gomora has written a book and made videos explaining what occurred. He's a descendant of Moctezuma. According to him no one in that position would hand their crown. Like everything in our continent it was taken. He's made trips to Austria and has pushed for its return for many years. The changes brought 500 years ago haven't been for the better.

Wanbli Koyake's picture
Wanbli Koyake
Submitted by Wanbli Koyake on
Hau mitakuye, Greetings my relative, Wopila Mr. Castillo' clarification of the spin that the wasicu generate. As someone who makes things in a Lifeway manner, a recent Wall Street Journal article caught my attention, “Time to Evict Nazi-Looted Art From Museums: Some institutions still cling to paintings sought by the descendants of Hitler's victims.” Such hypocrisy exemplifies Wasicu/Greedy irresponsibility . The article states, “that The Nazi thefts from 1933-45 are the greatest displacement of artwork in human history…After decades in which this issue was conveniently ignored, the U.S. State Department sponsored an international conference in Washington, D.C., in 1998 to resolve the many and complicated issues surrounding the repatriation of Nazi-looted art…The conference introduced 11 protocols, known as the Washington Principles. The U.S. and the 43 other countries that adopted the principles agreed to look for Nazi-looted art in their public art collections and to resolve restitution claims in a just and fair manner. The Washington Principles amount to these two truths: Art museums and their collections should not be built with stolen property. Passion for art should not displace respect for justice.” I’d agree whole-heartedly if not for the fact that the greatest displacement of “artwork” in human history occurred here in the Americas, Turtle Island! I’m always outraged at the hubris and falsity of the Greedy. Their generational pathological thievery negates their authority and credibility to determine what should be returned or not. If they are committed to righting their wrongs then they must get their own houses in order, they must strive to suspend their greedy values and treat Original Peoples as the originators of, not only their priceless collections, but of modern art as well. Now that would be a paradigm shift! It would redeem, renew, and strengthen the plagaristic and weak commodity that we all know as Art.