It is a question of debate whether it is actually a symbol of power of the last ruler of the Aztecs. A commission of experts set up by the Austrian government maintained that the crown was part of a priest's clothing worn for ritual purposes. In the 16th century hundreds of similar objects are reported to have been brought to Europe, but only the 'Plume of Feathers' - in Spanish 'Penacho' - has been preserved. Together with four further Mexican feather mosaic pieces, it is one of the last examples of the pre-Columbian feather craft in existence. Even without any mystic connotations, the director of the Museum for Anthropology, Christian Feest, holds the feather headdress to be a "(...) unique document for the observer of today both of the old America and of the new Europe of the 16th century, which latter ousted the indigenous cultures from their rule over the New World, banning them to the rare world of miracle chambers".
The history of the Penacho can be traced back to this world of the miracle chambers. As part of the great art collections of the Archduke Ferdinand II the feather headdress was incorrectly registered in an inventory of 1596 as 'a Moorish hat' - a headdress of Moorish origin.
The House of Habsburg bought a part of the cabinets known as the 'Ambraser Collection' and so the Penacho entered into Habsburg ownership. The custodian of the ethnographic department of the Royal and Imperial Museum of Natural History in Vienna found the headdress during a review of the collection in 1878 folded and moth-eaten in the corner of a wall cabinet
In Austria there are no doubts that the object was obtained absolutely legally and this is the basis for the refusal to return it. And Christian Feest sees the ownership of the Ancient Mexican objects as perfectly incontestable. "Today the Republic of Austria is the administrator of this inalienable cultural heritage of Austria. As such it is part of the World Cultural Heritage. It is our duty to safeguard it and maintain it." Speaking to the foreign policy committee of the Austrian parliament, Feest declared that it was necessary to "hold to the staying power of history" against the purely political debate in Mexico. The official claim of the museum foundation for the crown of feathers is: "It has been in Austria longer than it was ever in Mexico and it is just as much an artefact of European tradition."
Nevertheless critical voices are on the increase in Austria in favour of a return of the crown of feathers to Mexico on moral grounds. In order not to call in question the legal claims, there have been many occasions when attempts have been made to promote the idea that the feather headdress of such symbolic importance be returned as a gift.
"For Mexico this gift is of immeasurable significance, for us only the sacrifice of a few feathers", said Rudolf Burger, Rector of the Vienna Academy of Arts back in 1996. In the same year, the then Federal President, Thomas Klestil, spoke in favour of the return of all unlawfully acquired cultural assets from Austrian museums on the occasion of the Austrian millennium. In this context he also planned to hand over the feather headdress as a sign of gratitude for the fact that Mexico was the first country to protest in the League of Nations against the annexation of Austria by the Nazi regime in 1938. There was massive criticism from the politicians and the directors of museums. "If we were to start on this - what would the Austrians have left to exhibit? Cow bells?" commented Elisabeth Gehrer, then Minister for Education and Cultural Affairs, when asked to comment on the suggestion of the Federal President. The fear was widespread in the world of the museum specialists that the return of the headdress could set a precedent.
In the jubilee year 2005 an official application was made in the Austrian parliament concerning the return of the crown of feathers - and was deferred for an unlimited period. Since March 2007 a new application for a decision has been made. "It is not a question of restitution in the legal sense, as the crown of feathers entered into Austrian ownership quite legally according to all the documents available to us. Rather it is an act of friendship and gratitude", emphasised Wolfgang Zinggl, parliamentary representative of the Green Party. He is in favour of returning the headdress as such a mythological significant object can fulfil far more functions than in Austria "where it is simply one ethnological treasure among many."
A suitable occasion presents itself already, as 2008 will be another anniversary of the 1938 event.