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Last Aztec kings 500-year-old peace offering back on display

A priceless headdress once worn by the last Aztec king who hoped that by giving it to the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes it would lead to peace has been saved from falling apart after a two year restoration process by more than a dozen experts.

Cortes accepted the gift from Emperor Montezuma II in 1519 but it did not stop him laying waste to the Aztec capital in Mexico. The headdress however survived the destruction of the city of  Tenochtitlan where it was made and it was sent back as one of the spoils of war to the King of Spain, Don Carlos of Austria.

Ironically the gift that was intended as a sign of peace was used as part of Cortes' efforts to win the crown's support for his planned march to Tenochtitlan and the end of the Aztecs.

Once overseas, the headdress changed hands several times, making stops in the collections of European royalty such as Archduke Ferdinand Von Tirol where it was mentioned in 1521, before landing in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna in 1880.

The item was taken off public view two years ago after it was noted the flamingo and other feathers that adorned it were starting to fall apart - sparking a painstaking two year restoration project.

The director of the Kunsthistorischen Museums (KHM) to which the Museum of Ethnology belongs is Sabine Haag, who said. "Given its past it is a miracle that this item even exists today. It is by far our most important object."

She said that media reports of a tug of war with Mexico that reportedly wanted the artefact back were no longer an issue and had been hyped up by the press. Former Mexican President Abelardo Rodriguez, who held office from 1932 to 1934, paid out of his own pocket to have the replica made after seeing the original while visiting Vienna.

Haag said that the question of whether the headdress would ever be allowed back to Mexico on loan was still open, but would be hard after the Austrian Committee for Cultural Heritage ruled that it was not suitable for transport.

Its present flat appearance dates back to the restoration carried out in 1878 that had mistakenly identified the feather head-dress as a standard.

Haag said: "The feather head-dress comprises a wealth of different materials: organic ones such as feathers, plant fibres, wood, leather, paper and textiles, but also non-organic materials such as gold and gilded brass.

"The friction and abrasions caused by these materials and the artefact's age have compromised its state of preservation and complicated its conservation. The ageing process of the organic materials has resulted in irreparable, brittle and fragile areas.

"Although the object has been stabilized with careful interventions and preventive conservation measures its original condition cannot be recreated. However, after careful cleaning and various conservation measures the feather head-dress can now be put on public display again after an absence of many years."

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