The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco hold the largest and most important collection of Teotihuacan murals outside of Mexico. They came to the de Young as part of the bequest of the Harald Wagner estate. Wagner, a San Francisco–based architect, was a passionate art collector who had spent several years living in Mexico. In the mid-1960s he purchased a number of mural fragments from the site of Teotihuacan, an hour north of Mexico City. His bequest came as a surprise to the Museums, and the gift created a tangle of legal and ethical issues that took the Museums, working with the Mexican government, years to sort out. The result was an agreement that stands as a model of institutional responsibility in the sensitive area of restoring lost cultural patrimony. The voluntary repatriation of many of the murals helped establish a long and fruitful relationship between the Museums and peer institutions in Mexico City, with numerous collaborative exhibitions, loans, and conservation projects.
University of Rochester anthropologist René Millon, working with team of specialists and archaeologists, established the exact origins of Wagner murals in the early 1980s. They came from a large residential compound east of the Moon Pyramid. The high quality and complex iconography of the murals, as well as the site’s proximity to one of the city’s main ceremonial structures, indicate that the residents of this compound were part of the city’s ruling elite. Learn more about the Wagner murals.
Image credit: Mural fragment with warrior bird, Mexico, Teotihuacan, AD 400–600. Volcanic ash, lime, and mineral pigment. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, bequest of Harald J. Wagner, 1985.104.9. Photo © FAMSF