A Mexican is dressed in Aztec costume.

Mexico City - Talks between Mexico and Austria on the temporary return of an Aztec feather headdress could be a model for the return of other hotly contested artifacts, and may provide a chance to resolve persistent questions about the five-century old piece, academics said on Tuesday.

The exchange could give Mexico the headdress on loan from the museum of ethnology in Vienna where it is currently held, while Mexico could send back a gilded carriage once used by a member of Austria's royal family who ruled Mexico in the 1860s.

“The day the headdress returns to our country will mark a milestone in re-encountering (Mexico's) identity,” said Carlos Villanueva of the IberoAmerican University's cultural office, “but in truth we really don't know what its real use was.”

The semicircle of green feathers from the Quetzal bird and other species is more than one metre wide, rather large for headgear.

Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor, gave the feathered headdress as a gift to Spanish Conqueror Hernan Cortes in 1519. But Mexican officials concede Montezuma probably never personally wore it.

Who it may have been made for, and whether it was ever actually worn on the head of some leader and in what situations, are still open to debate.

Mexico's Foreign Relations Undersecretary Lourdes Aranda said it's clear that Montezuma never personally wore it.

But Mexico has tried for decades to win the return of the headdress, at one point appealing the case to the United Nations. But Austrian officials in the past “refused to discuss it”, Aranda said, noting that in recent years “there have been historical changes” in the situation.

Aranda said the temporary exchange was still under discussion and could involve lending Austria the ceremonial carriage used by Emperor Maximilian, a member of the Austrian royal family who was imposed as Mexico's ruler by a French invasion. He ruled from 1863 until he was deposed and executed in 1867.

Aranda says talks are progressing, but will not give a date for the return of the treasured artifact that Emperor Montezuma reportedly gave to conqueror Hernan Cortes.

The exchange would recognise each country's rights to the headdress as “common cultural legacy”, according to a statement by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.

One key to recognising Austria's rights to the piece lies in the fact that when it was exported in the 1500s, Mexico as a nation did not yet exist, Aranda said.

“I believe this could be an example for other cases in the world,” Aranda said, without referring to any specific country.

Greece has long demanded that Britain return the Elgin marbles, a series of statues and fragments removed from Athens' Parthenon in 1811 by Lord Elgin and later sold to the British Museum. - Sapa-AP