Harald Wagner died in 1976, stipulating in a handwritten will that his collection of wall paintings from the ancient city and ceremonial center of Teotihuacan, Mexico, be left to the de Young Museum of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The Wagner Bequest, completely unknown to the Museums until after the donor’s death, consisted of more than seventy fragments (ranging in size from a few inches in length to fourteen feet) that date to A.D. 400–700. 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.
Because of the size and importance of the donation and ethical issues regarding cultural patrimony, the Museums approached officials in Mexico to discuss a cooperative program of conservation and care, and the voluntary return of at least fifty percent of the murals to Mexico upon completion of conservation. After several years of negotiations, an agreement between the Fine Arts Museums and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History was executed in December 1981, providing for the joint conservation, exhibition, and disposition of this important collection. The collaborative conservation of the mural fragments represented an important first step in effectuating the terms of this historic and unprecedented agreement.
Although wall paintings were a major art form at Teotihuacan, little is known about them. We do not know if Wagner ever saw the murals in his collection before they were removed from their walls at Teotihuacan. The murals were crudely cut from the walls of ancient living compounds during the 1960s, with no attempt to document their removal scientifically or collect all the pieces. While groups of fragments are certainly interrelated, they cannot be reunited to form complete walls.
The conservation work needed to make the murals available for enjoyment, study and display lasted many years, after which point a fully illustrated publication of all the murals was published. The trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco voted to voluntarily return more than half of the murals to Mexico, in accordance with the agreement. This return was celebrated in a special exhibition at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City in 1986.