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The Contested Crown

Repatriation Politics between Europe and Mexico

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

Following conflicting desires for an Aztec crown, this book explores the possibilities of repatriation.
In The Contested Crown, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll meditates on the case of a spectacular feather headdress believed to have belonged to Montezuma, the last emperor of the Aztecs. This crown has long been the center of political and cultural power struggles, and it is one of the most contested museum claims between Europe and the Americas. Taken to Europe during the conquest of Mexico, it was placed at Ambras Castle, the Habsburg residence of the author’s ancestors, and is now in Vienna’s Welt Museum. Mexico has long requested to have it back, but the Welt Museum uses science to insist it is too fragile to travel.
Both the biography of a cultural object and a history of collecting and colonizing, this book offers an artist’s perspective on the creative potentials of repatriation. Carroll compares Holocaust and colonial ethical claims, and she considers relationships between indigenous people, international law and the museums that amass global treasures, the significance of copies, and how conservation science shapes collections. Illustrated with diagrams and rare archival material, this book brings together global history, European history, and material culture around this fascinating object and the debates about repatriation.

Download the free, open-access text at

200 pages | 27 halftones | 6 x 9

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Art: Art--General Studies

History: European History, Latin American History

Latin American Studies


"Reflecting on the repatriation of cultural property, this study covers disputed objects from the differing perspectives of ownership on the part of European museums in Austria, the UK, France, and Germany that currently hold cultural artifacts originally taken from Mexico. . . . Carroll reflects on the controversial five-centuries-long history in Mexico and Austria of El Penacho, the titular contested crown, believed to have belonged to Aztec Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin. . . . The study concludes with an analysis of the ethics of keeping artifacts in museums in the future."


"The Contested Crown is a beautifully written and engaging work, effectively weaving together family history, colonial studies, museum politics, conservation dilemmas, national agendas, and personal reflections. Carroll situates the book in a global art history while also considering a psychological dimension of the protagonists’ feelings, from guilt to intimacy.”

Sally Price, author of Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac's Museum on the Quai Branly

“I urge you to spend some time with The Contested Crown—an original, personal, and creative insight into the repatriation debate from someone uniquely placed to comment. The book invites us all to situate ourselves within a story that has deep historical roots and casts long shadows on all of our lives.”

Charlotte Joy, author of Heritage Justice

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Writing as Listening
Chapter 2: El Penacho
Chapter 3: The View from the Vitrine
Chapter 4: The Real and the Replica
Chapter 5: Collecting and Catastrophe
Chapter 6: Monuments and Exile
Chapter 7: Relational Ethics and the Future of Museums

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