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

A 500-year-old headdress connected to Aztec Emperor Moctezuma is too fragile to survive the trip from Austria home to Mexico, authorities say.
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It was probably a gift from an Aztec Emperor to a conquistador, but it will have to stay in Austria.

In early June of 2014, 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."

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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.