The Vienna "Moctezuma" Collection by Christian Feest



[00:00:00] The story of the Vienna Mexican collection—the famous pieces presumably brought back by Cortés after the Conquest of Mexico—started in the nineteenth century, when a new ethnographic museum in Vienna was established and the first director went around looking in other museums for possible collections to be incorporated into this new ethnographic museum. There he found in one of the old art collections of Vienna, an interesting piece of featherwork, which he recognized as being Mexican. There was an old catalog, a sixteenth-century catalog of this art collection, which listed this piece of featherwork as a Moorish hat.

Now [the director] recognized that it was not Moorish, but Mexican. And in order to find out more about it, he looked around the same case and next to this feather headdress was a Brazilian anchor ax. The label on it said that this had been a gift from Moctezuma to Cortés, and from Cortés to the Pope, and from the Pope to the Medicis, and so had come down to the Hapsburgs finally in the sixteenth century. This first director recognized that this anchor ax was not Mexican, but he took the presumed association of this piece with Moctezuma as a clue that the Moorish hat, which he recognized as Mexican, should actually be Moctezuma’s headdress. And it seemed logical because Spain was under the Hapsburgs at the time of the Conquest of Mexico, and Austria was under the Hapsburgs. So this must have been the reason why these things had come from Spain to Austria [he thought].

The Hoax behind the Headdress

[01:48:00] In fact, I ultimately found a document that proves that the feather headdress did not come to Austria through Hapsburg family connections, but that in the 1560s and 1570s it had been in a small collection of art and curiosities in southern Germany.

When Cortés arrived in Mexico, and word spread that some strange people had arrived on the coast of Veracruz, Moctezuma, after consulting with his advisors, decided that this was an ominous event and needed some attention. So he selected a group of objects, largely ritual regalia, which he sent with a delegation to Veracruz to ward off the coming of the Spanish into the central heartland of Mexico. The Spanish, of course, did not recognize these things for what they were, and thought these were presents from the king of Mexico. So a detailed list was made, and the things were sent to Spain to the Emperor Charles V.

This [list] is very important because there is no feather headdress with a golden bird’s head listed on this one list. So this fully excludes the possibility that this feather headdress could have belonged to the so-called “guest presents” of Moctezuma to Cortés. In fact, in the sixteenth century such pieces of featherwork were very much present in a variety of collections in Europe, even small collections, rural collections of small nobility with an interest in collecting, not just in the Hapsburg family.

The Myth Grows

[03:31:00] In the meantime, in the late 1870s, this headdress had been published as a “Moctezuma’s feather headdress,” and this was also published in Mexico. And then you have the Mexican Revolution of 1910, breaking out and dragging on for a decade, and in the end giving the country a new identity—an identity that was to be different from the colonial past. The new identity was not to be based on the Spanish heritage but on the old Indian heritage, what you call “indigenismo,” the idea that modern Mexico is the logical successor to the Aztecs. What happened next is that among the intellectuals—who were the supporters of the revolution and the ideologists of this indigenous thought—these people knew of Moctezuma’s headdress. And they said, “Now this is a symbol of our heritage, and this is really what we should be proud of.” They sent people to Vienna to have a copy made of the headdress, because at that time there was no discussion about repatriation or cultural property whatsoever. So the copy was made, which is now in the national museum of Mexico, and is much more beautiful, of course, than the original in Vienna, because it is newer. The one in Vienna is five hundred years old now.

Every schoolchild in Mexico learns that the “penache” of Moctezuma is in Vienna, and scores of Mexican tourists come every year to the museum in Vienna to look at it, have their pictures taken in front of it, and go back thinking they have seen the real thing. What they have seen really is only the myth, because there never was a Moctezuma’s feather headdress, and certainly this one is not even part of Moctezuma’s presents. It has just become a symbol. It has become a mythical symbol of modern Mexican identity.

"We Want the Headdress Back"

[05:30:00] The funny thing is that the Mexican government never made any serious effort to ask for it, with one exception. President Echeverría, in the 1970s, came to Vienna, and it was rumored that he would come to ask for it. But he came, looked at it, had his picture taken in front of it, and said, “Thanks that you have kept it for us,” and went away. So he was using this argument basically at home for his own political purposes, but never made an effort to have it returned to Mexico.

In the late 1980s, however, a person arrived in Vienna who claimed to be an Aztec himself. This person was a speaker of modern Nahuatl and was a person who had been living in Germany for about ten years, and apparently in Germany had “re-Indianized” himself and had realized how good it was, especially in Europe, to be an Indian, because people love you if you’re an Indian. And somehow he thought that he could become rich and famous by returning Moctezuma’s feather headdress to Mexico. So he took the cause to Vienna, and came to the museum, and said, “Here I am…give me my headdress back.” People laughed at him and said, “Who are you? On what basis do you claim this headdress? It’s not even Moctezuma’s.” He said, “Well, I know it is, so I want it back. I am an Aztec and it belongs to me—to me and my people.”

The next thing that happened was that he brought a huge crowd of followers to the museum, and they set up a group of teepees, Plains Indian teepees, outside the museum.

I was at that time the curator of the collections, but I was not in town. I was for a year in the United States, and when I came back he was still there, and one day he walked into my office. I was quite happy to see him, actually—to talk to him about this. And I listened to his stories, and I tried to explain to him the historical complexities of the letter, which he listened to kindly, but said, “My story is different,” although he had no proof. But he didn’t need any proof, because if he was living in a teepee, everyone would believe him that he was an Indian and that he had a right to ask for this headdress.

A Gift or Loot?

[07:48:00] Sometimes it is governments who come in and make return requests like this, and sometimes it is other collector groups, like organized tribes, who make such claims, and the problem is that there is no easy answer to any of these requests because I think that one would have to look very specifically at the merits of each case. There are cases, of course, where things were in fact taken away from people illegally. Even at that time it was regarded as unethical or illegal. In many other cases the question is not as clear cut. Even if those Mexican pieces in Vienna would have been Moctezuma’s presents to Cortés (this is actually what the Mexicans were arguing when I was discussing this matter with the people in the museum in Mexico—they said, “This was not loot; this was given to Cortés, so it should be where it is now.”), other things were looted, of course, from Mexico at that time.

There also is the question whether after five hundred years it is possible to identify these things, and also whether it makes sense to return them to the country of origin. Europe has a long history of wars and looting. And there are many things during the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century that were taken from one country to the other. Parts of the old museum in Prague, for example, were looted by the Swedish, and these things are in Sweden now. They can be identified, but nobody has asked for them back because these are historical facts which cannot be undone.

Culture of Collecting

[09:28:00] There is another aspect also. These Mexican pieces, and others, just using this as an example now, have been in a collection—or various European collections—for 480 years about, much longer than they ever had been in the possession of the original owners. These things would not have been preserved had it not been for a culture of collecting, which is something that is very rare in the world. There are few cultures in the world that have made the preservation of cultural documents, especially also of other cultures, something of value in the culture. And it is only through this culture of collecting that many things that otherwise would never have been preserved (and that now can be claimed by peoples whose own culture had not been a culture of collecting) can now be claimed as cultural heritage—and not even by the true descendents in most cases, but by governments or by self-styled individuals or groups who are of much later origin than these things preserved by museums. I don’t think that in these cases it really makes sense to return things to somebody who doesn’t have a good claim, legally or ethically. I don’t believe in the retroactive laws, in laws that are enacted now but will cover the past five hundred or one thousand years. There was no law at that time to prevent the exportation of cultural property. The only way really to preserve cultural property at that time was to bring it to Europe.