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Aztec headdress will not travel to British Museum show

Fragile treasure, “Moctezuma’s Crown”, is subject of restitution claims

“Moctezuma’s Crown” will not be coming to the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition on the Aztec emperor, which opens in September. The dramatic headdress, currently in Vienna, is made of 450 brightly coloured tail feathers of the quetzal bird, with gold appliqué.

The absence of the Mexican “crown” from the British Museum blockbuster might seem a surprising omission, but there are two reasons why a loan is not being requested from Austria’s Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnology).

The 500-year-old “quetzalcopilli” (quetzal headdress) is extremely fragile, and should not travel for conservation reasons. But the other problem is that the Aztec treasure is the subject of restitution claims. There are calls for its return to Mexico as a key object of Aztec culture, which was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors.

In 1996, the then Austrian president, Thomas Klestil, proposed returning the headdress, in a gesture to honour Mexico for being the first state to protest about the Anschluss (union) with Nazi Germany in 1938. This restitution proposal was immediately rebuffed by Austria’s culture minister and national museum directors.

More recently, in 2005, the then Mexican president Vicente Fox asked for the headdress to be returned while on a visit to Vienna. Austria’s president Heinz Fischer responded that this was a matter for parliament.

Despite the emotions aroused by the headdress, scholars believe that it is not actually the crown of Moctezuma, but was worn by Aztec priests. However, it would still have been relevant to the British Museum exhibition, since the show also deals with “Moctezuma in history”, and the headdress was once believed to be the imperial crown.

The quetzal treasure may have been brought back by Hernán Cortés, after the death of Moctezuma, and it would then have been presented to Charles V, the Habsburg ruler. However, it is not recorded in the list of items presented to Cortés in 1519. This makes it more likely that it reached Austria later in the 16th century. It is recorded in an inventory at Ambras Castle in 1596.

Eventually, in 1878, the quetzalcopilli was rediscovered and transferred to Vienna’s Museum of Natural History, which then also covered ethnology. It first went on display in 1889, as the Crown of Moctezuma. In 1908, scholars suggested that it might be the headdress of an Aztec priest.

The Museum für Völker-kunde closed for refurbishment in 2004, and because of funding difficulties, no date has been set for its reopening. This means the quetzal headdress remains in store.