Montezuma's headdress, in Europe for 500 years, may return to Mexico

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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 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.

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.''

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Mari Anne Souza - 2/23/2006

This is huge! I can't think of any other artifact, except the holy grail that carries as much significance to a people as the retrieval of Montezuma's headdress would be. I hope Austria will come around and realize this. It just seems wrong that such an important piece of Mexico's history and culture is thousands of miles away, inaccessible to millions of Mexicans. Consider all that has happened to Mexico and the Mexican people at the hands of invaders, and you can't help but believe that the headdress belongs in Mexico. I've seen the replica, at the museum in Mexico City; it is magnificent.