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Montezuma’s headdress may be returned after 500 years

Mexico is trying to secure the return of the headdress of the Aztec emperor Montezuma, currently held in an Austrian museum. They are hoping that with the rise in publicity for high profile restitution cases in recent months, the Austrian government may re-consider their position on the piece.

Bloomberg News [1]

Montezuma’s Headdress May Return Home After 500 Years (Update1)
Feb. 9 (Bloomberg)

Five centuries after Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes laid waste to the Aztec capital, Mexico may be about to recover its most precious artifact: the headdress of Emperor Montezuma II.

“We’ve never been closer than we are right now,” said Xoko Gomora, a 54-year-old Mexican Indian who has spent three decades lobbying officials in Austria, where the headdress now lies in a Viennese museum.

Museums and governments are being pressed by countries from Mexico to Italy to return artifacts taken by conquerors and archeologists. Greece is demanding the British Museum in London return the marble friezes removed from the Parthenon at the turn of the 19th century. Peru is asking Yale University to give back Incan pottery and jewelry that professor Hiram Bingham took home to New Haven, Connecticut in the early 1900s.

Montezuma, whose name is spelled Moctezuma in Spanish, ruled more than 250,000 people in Tenochtitlan, the biggest city in the Americas at the time. His headdress — a red, gold, and turquoise semicircular band topped with 400 bronze-green feathers of the Central American quetzal bird — is the most important surviving Aztec artifact, said Felipe Solis, director of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The anthropology museum has a replica of the headdress, while the original sits in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna.

Formal Request

Mexico plans to send Austria a formal request for the piece in the next several weeks, said lawmaker Jorge Triana, a member of President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party. In November, Triana — along with Gomora — helped push a point of order through congress urging Fox to make the request.

“It’s an important piece, and we feel it should be in Mexico’s anthropology museum and not in a foreign museum,” Triana said in a Jan. 13 interview from Mexico City. He estimated its value at about $50 million.

Peter Schieder, chairman of the Austrian Parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee in Vienna, said he anticipates congressional approval this month of a resolution calling on the government to give back the headdress.

While non-binding, the call would add to pressure on Austrian President Heinz Fischer to return the piece, said Schieder, who met with Gomora in Vienna in early January.

“It has a real importance for Mexico and for many people there,” Schieder said in a Jan. 18 telephone interview.

Vases, Paintings

Fischer’s administration won’t comment on the headdress until Mexico sends the formal request, a spokesman for the Austrian Foreign Ministry said.

Opposition remains within Austria. Wilfried Seipel, director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the state-run cultural facility that houses the Museum of Ethnology, said the piece should stay in Austria because it has been in the country for centuries.

“It is also part of Austrian culture,” Seipel said in a statement released by the museum. “Moreover, Austria did not get hold of the object by theft.”

Countries are having more success in winning back relics they have been seeking for years.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed last week to return items including a 2,500-year-old vase after asking the Italian government for proof they were stolen.

This week, the Dutch government pledged to return more than 200 paintings hanging in 17 museums and government buildings since the 1950s to the heir of Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch art collector who fled Amsterdam ahead of the Nazis in May 1940.


“There’s more interest among the general public lately on these requests, partly because of the high profile of some of these cases,” said Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York, also known as the IFAR.

How the headdress made its way from the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, to its current location in Vienna is debated by historians.

Cortes may have received it in 1519 from Montezuma as part of a package of gifts sent to appease the Spaniards so they wouldn’t advance from their beachhead on the Yucatan coast to the Aztec capital, according to historian Hugh Thomas.

Cortes in turn probably sent the headdress on to the King of Spain, Don Carlos of Austria, in an effort to win the crown’s support for his planned march to Tenochtitlan, according to Thomas, author of “Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico.”


Once overseas, the headdress changed hands several times, making stops in the collections of European royalty such as Archduke Ferdinand Von Tirol before landing in the Museum of Ethnology in 1880.

Schieder said he will propose that Austria swap the original for the replica. Former Mexican President Abelardo Rodriguez, who held office from 1932 to 1934, paid out of his own pocket to have the replica made after seeing the original while visiting Vienna.

Sixty years later, President Carlos Salinas took up the cause and made an attempt to bring the headdress back to Mexico in the early 1990s. The two sides dropped the issue until Fox brought it up with Fischer in Mexico City last May.

Gomora, a tour guide who takes Germans to Mexico and teaches indigenous dance, said he’s convinced the return of Montezuma’s headdress will bring about a “positive change” in the country.

Thumbing through a scrapbook that includes photographs of him lobbying the late Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama for their intervention, Gomora said he will move back to Mexico City when the headdress arrives.

“This is my mission in life,” said Gomora, whose full first name, Xokonoschtletl, comes from the indigenous language Nahuatl. “I can’t abandon it. This crown is sacred.”