Spare Parts, Strange Bedfellows

The Aztec headdress now in Vienna cost hundreds of tropical birds their lives when it was created in the early sixteenth century. Three hundred fifty years later, more birds would die for its restoration — this time, though, not tracked down in the jungles of Meso-America, but purchased on the same market that supplied feathers to the fashionable ladies of Mitteleuropa.

According to Hochstetter in his report of the 1884 restoration, the headdress (which was then thought to be a battle standard or fan) still included 459 quetzal plumes when it was handed over for repair.

But the remains of quills on the back side of the spread let us understand that very many such feathers had broken and fallen out, so it is not too much to assume that the original number can be estimated to have been at least 500. Since the male quetzal generally has only two, or at the most four, of these plumes, several hundred quetzals must have surrendered their feathers for this one object.

Not only were some of the original long feathers missing, but the band of shorter green quetzal feathers (visible against the reddish background in the 1908 photograph above) had been “completely destroyed” by moth and rust. But fortunately, Hochstetter tells us,

the pre-contact peoples of the Americas were not the only ones to use quetzal feathers for ornament and decoration; nowadays fine European ladies also adorn themselves with them, so it wasn’t difficult to obtain genuine quetzal feathers for the restoration. Such feathers were used only to restore the destroyed green band at the base of the fan, however.

Hochstetter goes on to note that long quetzal plumes would have been available from the same sources, but it was decided not to replace the originals:

Those long plumes today cost as much as ostrich plumes or the feathers of New Guinea’s birds of paradise. At today’s prices, 500 such long quetzal plumes would cost about 5,000 Austrian gulden.

The conversion is not straightforward, but it seems that that would be the equivalent of about US $50,000 — and even Imperial Museums had to stay within their budget.

The sky-blue feathers of the inner bands were another problem. These patches were originally made up of feathers from the underparts of the Lovely Cotinga, but, says Hochstetter, they too had deteriorated very badly, and required not just restoration but replacement.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to turn up enough cotinga skins to carry out a truly authentic restoration. As a substitute, we chose the magnificent White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) of India, the turquoise back feathers of which most closely approach the turquoise of the cotinga. Restoration required 24 skins of this species.

Hochstetter doesn’t say where those two dozen kingfisher backs came from, but it seems improbable that his colleagues over at K.K. Naturhistorisches Museum would have handed him theirs. More likely, just as in the case of the quetzal feathers, the conservators simply addressed themselves to the great millinery supply houses of Paris or of London.

Availability was no problem: two single-day sales in London twenty years later accounted for a total of more than 35,000 kingfisher skins. And unlike the prohibitively pricey quetzal plumes, whole White-throated Kingfishers could be had in the early twentieth century for somewhere between six and nine cents each. It probably cost the museum more to have them delivered.

Happily for nervous squirrel cuckoos and spoonbills, the rest of the feathers in the headdress were sufficiently well preserved as to require nothing more than routine care.

I’m sure that more details lurk in the files of the Museum für Völkerkunde. For now, though, what we know about this first restoration of this spectacular artifact hints at a fascinating and probably unique collaboration between scientists and plumassiers in nineteenth-century Vienna. I’m looking forward to learning more.


1908 photo of the Aztec headdress.

White-throated Kingfisher.

Poached White-throated Kingfishers from Africa.