The Long Strange Journey of the Harald Wagner Teotihuacán Murals

The mysterious people that built the ancient city of Teotihuacán are still revealing their secrets to us today. The ruins of that historic urban center are located approximately 25 miles northeast of the sprawling metropolitan center of Mexico City. It is a testament to the power and influence of the inhabitants of Teotihuacán that Maya city-states as far away as Kaminaljuyu in modern-day Guatemala depicted Teotihuacán’s power and reach in their art. Over the centuries, the site of Teotihuacán has been ransacked by foreign and domestic looters leaving scholars with holes in the archaeological record. Much of what scholars do know stems from civilizations that flourished afterward, such as the Aztecs. For example, the word Teotihuacán is Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. At times, the handling of artifacts from Teotihuacán has been considered controversial. Additionally, globetrotters and adventurers have been drawn to the allure of Teotihuacán to admire its beauty. Such is the case of San Francisco architect Harald Wagner (1903-1976), who acquired murals from Teotihuacán in the 1960s through a series of dubious transactions. The murals date between A.D. 400-700, and consist of over seventy fragments with some as large as fourteen feet to only a few inches. The richness of color and artistic expression is evident hundreds of years later, “Each fragment is composed of a thick backing of volcanic ash, a thin layer of lime, and a painted surface with elaborate images of priest-deities, animals in ritual activity, warrior-birds, feathered serpents, and flowering trees with emblems.”(1) It was not until after his death that his estate gifted the de Young Museum his vast private collection of murals from Teotihuacán. This generous windfall provided an opportunity for the United States and Mexico to work together in a historic academic partnership.

Annabeth Headrick, an art historian, specializing in ancient Mesoamerica, writes, “Teotihuacan-inspired pottery and architecture indicate a lengthy period of sustained contact.” Since around the year 400 A.D, visitors to Teotihuacán have been awestruck by the size of the site. The famous Avenue of the Dead is the main artery of the complex, stretching nearly three miles in length. Teotihuacán served as Mesoamerica’s largest and most populated city, “The city (c. 150 B.C.–A.D. 750) covered 20 square kilometers (8 square miles) at its height and had a population of at least 125,000 and probably 200,000 (Millon 1973).”(3) The ancient Teotihuacanos masterfully used the natural landscape as a backdrop to their city, “The attraction of the natural mountain and its manmade counterpart is additionally heightened by the surrounding architecture, which skillfully channel visitors onto a unidirectional path.” (4) It is not all surprising that scholars and Mesoamerica enthusiasts are drawn to the wonders of Teotihuacán.

To unlock the mysteries of this sophisticated civilization, scholars analyze the relics and artwork found throughout the area of Teotihuacán. The artwork created by the inhabitants of Teotihuacán, in particular, is distinctive when compared to other civilizations in Mesoamerica. For example, unlike Maya artists, Teotihuacanos painted with little regard to three-dimensional space. “Often, Teotihuacan figures float in space without any rationalizing props, and when the artist did include background details such as a structural façade, the decorative patterning of the vacant space reduces the three-dimensional effect.” (5) The majority of the murals that caught the eye of Harald Wagner originated in a vast residential complex area within Teotihuacán known as Techinantitla, “For the compound as a whole then, the murals of Techinantitla celebrate rituals involving bloodletting and the heart sacrifice of captives obtained in war.” (6) The murals contain multiple layers of meaning and symbolism. The well-recognized Feathered Serpent murals from the Wagner collection, for example, “are remarkably well preserved in color; much of the green, blue, and yellow remind in good condition and the painting style of the plants is precise and delicate.”(7) The Feathered Serpent icon is a recurring artistic theme in Tula, Teotihuacán, and Chichén Itzá – often depicted with a water motif. However, “In late Teotihuacan art, serpents also are found in political contexts.”(8) Maybe it was Harald Wagner’s training as an architect that attracted him to purchase the Teotihuacán murals? Many of his acquaintances have contemplated, “he may have collected the broken fragments with a strong sense of propriety and rectitude- a need to take something, improve upon it, and make it right.”(9) Regardless of his motivation, this ambitious effort set into motion a joint scholar study of these priceless pieces.

During the 1960s, the murals of Teotihuacán were secretly moved off-site from their centuries-old home to the private collection of American Harald Wagner’s hacienda estate. After making his first visit to Mexico in the mid-1950s, Harald Wagner became captivated by the people of Mexico and their culture. Choosing to spend half the year in Mexico and the other half in San Francisco, Harald Wagner actively sought out collecting relics from Mexico’s past. Many questions remain regarding how Wagner acquired the Teotihuacán murals in his collection, “The details of Wagner’s purchase of the murals are not well understood for obvious reasons, but he left written receipts that indicate he had purchased the murals on four separate occasions.”(10) Unfortunately, the answers to many of these questions will stay with Wagner due to his passing in 1976. He bequeathed the murals to the de Young Museum in San Francisco in his will. The assistant curator of the Art of Arica, Oceania, and the Americas de Young Museum, Kathleen Berrin reflects on the news on the museum’s windfall, “Few gifts could have been more unexpected than the Wagner Bequest of over seventy painted wall fragments from the ancient civilization of Teotihuacan.”(11) The gift undoubtedly enhanced the museum’s holdings of Early American artwork, but it also placed the museum in a precarious international situation. Berrin acknowledges the predicament, “The mural collection and the moral-political, philosophical and artistic issues it raised were so multifaceted, enmeshed, and sometimes contradictory, we had to proceed slowly, checking and rechecking our data.”(12) By accepting these antiqued works of art from Teotihuacán, the de Young Museum also accepted a tremendous burden. How do we reconcile the questionable practices that eventually lead to a prized collection to the museum? Berrin and her team took the high road in dealing with this delicate issue, “We believed that a voluntary return of a significant portion of the murals to Mexico would be ethically warranted and important.”(13) The decision to not only share the majority of the Wagner gift with Mexico was the beginning of a fruitful partnership. Museum staff worked with Mexican officials and the American Embassy to create an agreement resulting in mutual academic work that ensured the preservation of the murals for future generations. The administration and board members of the de Young museum chose to include scholars from the Instituto Nacional e Anthroplogía e Historia (INAH) their Mexican counterparts. Even though they could not agree on the question of ownership, these two parties found common ground in the spirit of cooperation. The decision fostered a new direction for both parties, “We learned that there is a difference between legal and ethical actions, and that join collaboration can yield unexpected benefits.” (14) The collaboration between the de Young Museum and the Instituto Nacional e Anthroplogía e Historia continues to this day.
Wagner’s collection from Teotihuacán was acquired using back channels to grow his private collection. Often, those in possession of these ancient relics see themselves as collectors. The joint project undoubtedly benefited our understanding of Teotihuacán and its mysterious residents. Through mutual respect for cultural patrimony and international law, scholars from the de Young Museum and Instituto Nacional e Anthroplogía e Historia proved that ancient relics could be shared for a better understanding of ancient cultures.