VIENNA – The Mexican government says it believes Montezuma’s headdress, a spectacular featherwork crown, will arrive this year on loan from Austria for “a reasonable period” of time and that its stay in Mexico could later be extended.
Mexico’s deputy foreign relations secretary, Lourdes Aranda, made the remarks on Friday in Vienna, adding that officials in both countries were still discussing the legal aspects of the temporary loan.
The precious artifact, made of 400 bronze-green quetzal feathers mounted in gold and studded with precious stones, is an important Mexican national symbol because it is traditionally believed to have been worn by Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor at the time of the Spanish arrival in 1519.
“We’re confident and we’re optimistic that this is the year this loan deal will take place. We hope it’s in Mexico by the second half of the year. But that will depend on many factors,” Aranda said.
Efforts to reach agreement have required “many years of promoting good bilateral ties and recognition that this is a matter that was always going to cause some problems in bilateral relations and we needed to overcome” those difficulties, she said.
“Mexico has made it very clear it’s not considering the issue of ownership of the headdress,” she said, adding that “for us it’s clear the headdress is property of the Austrian government.”
“There’s full commitment on Mexico’s part that, in the case of a temporary loan, at the end of that loan period that piece would return to the Austrian museum it came from,” Aranda said.
The arrangement also will depend on an assessment by Austrian and Mexican art conservators, who must examine this valuable piece and determine if it is in condition to be transported to Mexico.
In exchange for the headdress, Austria would receive on loan the golden stagecoach used by Maximilian I of Mexico, emperor during the Second Mexican Empire from 1863 to 1867 and brother of Franz Joseph I of Austria.
The deputy foreign relations secretary said Mexican experts can ensure that piece is perfectly conserved during transport.
As an example, she cited the “Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler” exhibit that was organized in London in 2009 by the British Museum and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and widely praised by experts worldwide.
The featherwork crown has been held for more than five years in a warehouse at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna and Austrian authorities have never loaned it out. They say doing so would be risky because it is extremely fragile, although fears about possible claims on the piece by Mexico are an open secret.
Exchanging one piece for another is a way to ensure the headdress does not cause conflict and instead “allows us to cooperate,” Aranda said, adding that the duration of the loan is still being discussed but that the expectation is that it will be in Mexico for a long period of time.
“It has to be something that’s worth it. We hope it’s for a reasonable period and, if agreement is reached, that (the timeframe) can even be extended,” Aranda said.
The headdress became part of the collection that Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria – nephew of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor – held at Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck, Austria at the end of the 16th century.
It was only in the 19th century that that the piece was determined to be of Aztec origin.
Austrian experts say the featherwork crown did not belong to Montezuma but instead was an ornamental element used by priests, although they acknowledge the headdress’ significance in Mexican culture.
Fifteen years ago, Austria’s then-president, the late Thomas Klestil, requested that it be returned as a gesture of gratitude to Mexico, the only country that did not recognize Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938.
In 2006 and 2009, bills sponsored by the Social Democratic Party of Austria and The Greens in Parliament also called for the piece to be returned – or at least loaned out – in recognition of that historical gesture, but the measures were opposed by representatives from the conservative Austrian People’s Party.
Last Sunday, Austrian museum authorities said for the first time that the piece could be loaned to Mexico temporarily for exhibit there.