A symbol of Mexico’s pre-colonial grandeur fades out of sight

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The most hotly contested artifact disputed between the Mexican and Austrian governments just disappeared from public view for at least a couple of years.

The quetzal-feather headdress, or penacho, supposedly once worn by Montezuma—or Moctezuma as his Nahuatl name is often rendered—has been in Austria since 1596 and is currently housed at Vienna’s Weltmuseum.

On Nov. 2, the museum closed its doors in order to undertake a two-year rebranding. Its vast collection will now be placed into vaults.

The Weltmuseum is itself something of a relic—opened in 1806, it is a throwback to the colonial era containing some 200,000 pieces from human cultures all over the world. It includes a large number of items collected by the famed British explorer, Captain Cook.

Nevertheless, the Weltmuseum isn’t particularly well attended.

“Some of you may know the place because we have this notorious penacho of Moctezuma—a Mexican feather headdress that pops up in the evening news or in a demonstration once in a while,” Steven Engelsman, who is in charge of rebranding the Weltmuseum, said in an Oct. 20 Tedx Talk.

Engelsman described how part of the problem is that Viennese people don’t seem to feel particularly connected to the museum, which until April 2013—it’s last rebranding—was known as the Museum for Ethnology Vienna.

As a result, Engelsman calls the Weltmuseum the “most unknown museum in Vienna.”

Mexican Pilgrimage to Vienna

According to Gerard van Bussel, curator of Montezuma’s penacho, 5 percent of the museum’s attendees are Mexican nationals--who don’t have to pay admission.

“It’s our little gift to Mexico,” Bussel says.

Many Mexicans are surprised to learn that the penacho exhibited at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is a 1940 replica paid by President Abelardo Rodríguez.

The president had seen the original during a state visit to Vienna and wanted Mexico to have a copy.

“One can feel more the spiritual force seeing it here than the replica,” says Guillermo García Perez, a retired mathematics teacher who made the journey with his family. “I think about the greatness of the Mexica, the Aztecs. It should be taken to Mexico. It’s a treasure.”

The reasons why it hasn’t been taken to Mexico are many. In a two-year joint study by Austria and Mexico between 2010 and 2012, it was concluded that moving the headdress could cause irreparable damage.

“The technology is there to move it,” insists José Alfredo Fuentes, a Mexican electrical engineer. “It’s an important element to maintain in our culture, and it’s from an emperor. We have the right to buy it.”

It’s easy to see why the penacho elicits such nationalistic responses. It has survived nearly unchanged for close to 500 years.

With over 400 quetzal feathers and a span of close to 5 feet wide, the penacho is breathtaking. According to María Olvido Moreno, the Mexican restoration expert who worked on the penacho, the headpiece has four types of feathers and is a “living” thing.

With proper care it could easily survive another 500 years.

Many Questions

Nobody is absolutely certain that it belonged to Montezuma himself, or possibly to another Mexica royal.

It may have been a gift from Montezuma, the Aztec King at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, to Hernán Cortés. Or Cortés may have stolen it.

In any event, it was taken to Europe, and, somehow, ended up in the collection of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II von Tyrol in 1596, where it was first recorded as being a moorish hat.

About the only thing that’s certain is that the penacho has not always had an easy life in Europe.

Its golden beak was lost and then found in 1878 in a glass cabinet with other objects. Mites ate some of its feathers, but most were rescued in time and kept from further deterioration.

It’s thought that originally the headdress was flexible and, when placed on the head, the feathers would fall back resembling those of a bird. However, when it was first shown in Vienna in 1889, the penacho was flattened for easier display.

Call It Anything but a Crown

Previously it was thought that this headdress was handed down from ruler to ruler like the crown of a European monarch.

However, the 2010-12 study determined that the penacho is not a crown. For one thing the remaining feathers all date from the 16th century. However, the study does not rule out the possibility that it could have been part of Montezuma’s regalia.

Xokonoschtletl Gomora, a human-rights activist who has posted an online petition asking Austria to return the headdress to Mexico, in an interview with Identidad DF, argued that the penacho is a copilli ketzalli, a sacred crown, because it’s made of quetzal feathers, which along with jade were one of the most prized commodities among the Aztecs.

He believes that it’s a symbol that carried as much meaning and power as the Papal Mitre.

Former Mexican presidents such as Vicente Fox have also made claims to the Austrian government about the penacho, but never in a formal manner.

Ways the Penacho Could Be Returned to Mexico

Mexico has the carriage of the Austrian-born Emperor Maximilian. When France invaded Mexico in the early 1860s over unpaid foreign debts, Napoleon III installed the Habsburg brother of Austria’s Franz Joseph I as its emperor.

Maximilian soon angered even the Conservatives who favored a monarchy and was overthrown after 3 years in power and executed.

It has been suggested that Mexico could exchange his carriage for the penacho.

The principal problem, however, is that any such trade of antiquities could be interpreted as tacit agreement that the Austrians are the penacho’s rightful owners, and possibly set a precedent for Mexico’s attempts to reclaim other historical artifacts that have been removed from the country.

Earlier this year, Mexico paid a million dollars for a pre-Columbian manuscript known as the Chimalpahin codex from the Bible Society in England in order to prevent it from coming to auction [http://www.businessinsider.com/afp-in-mexico-codex-exhibit-rethinks-moctezumas-death-2014-10].

The price for the Penacho, however, would figure to be much higher. Estimates of its value range as high as $50 million.

Some European governments have even been known to repatriate artifacts without payment. In June, Colombia received nearly 700 pre-Columbian pieces that had been seized by the Spanish police.

Now, as a beloved part of Mexico’s heritage disappears from view for an uncertain period of time, it is a perfect time to figure out how to get the penacho back home.

“It’s been said that oil will run out [in Mexico], but culture won’t, because it’s a fundamental part of what we are,” the leading Mexican archeologist, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, said in a recent speech. “We have it on our skin, and it characterizes us as a nation.”