A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Eugène Boban (Courtesy Jane Walsh/Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City)
The Mitchell-Hedges skull was first publicly known in 1936, when it was published in the journal Man after London art dealer Sydney Burney brought it to the British Museum for study. The Burney skull, as it was then called, was photographed, measured, and compared with the British Museum “Aztec” crystal skull. The British Museum had purchased their crystal skull in 1898 from Tiffany & Co. in New York City. Tiffany’s had purchased the skull more than a decade earlier from the French antiquarian Eugène Boban, who auctioned off his Mexican artifact collection in October 1886. George Kunz, vice president of Tiffany’s, acted as an intermediary between Boban and George Sisson, who apparently owned the skull for some period between 1888 and 1898. In 1898, Mr. Kunz once again acted as the middleman between Sisson, Tiffany’s, and the British Museum (Walsh 1997; Sax, Walsh, et al. 2008).
Burney obtained his crystal skull in early 1933, as attested in a letter he wrote on Burney Gallery stationary to the director of the American Museum of Natural History in February of that year (AMNH 2/17/1933):
I have just acquired a life-size rock crystal skull with separate jaw, from Mexico, and I shall be glad to know if it is of interest to you or your museum.
It isn’t known from whom Burney acquired the skull, but either the seller claimed it was from Mexico, as the British Museum’s skull was thought to be, or Burney himself supposed it did, since his skull was so similar to the museum’s.
Burney owned the skull from 1933 until 1943, all the while attempting to find a buyer. His bringing it to the British Museum for study was not, I would speculate, entirely an academic exercise on his part. However, the museum did not choose to acquire another crystal skull and it was ultimately sold at Sotheby’s in London on October 15, 1943, to Frederick A. Mitchell-Hedges, Anna Mitchell-Hedges’s adoptive father, for £400. (London was relatively quiet, with most of the fighting then in North Africa and on the eastern front.)
The 1943 Sotheby's catalogue gave this description of the skull, a photograph of which was used as the frontispiece: "A superb life-size crystal Carving of a Human Skull, the lower jaw separate, the details are correctly rendered and the carver has given the orbits, zygomatic arches and mastoid processes the similitude of their natural forms."
Frederick Mitchell-Hedges announced this purchase to his brother in a letter written in December 1943, which includes perhaps the first mention of a date for the skull’s manufacture (the Mitchell-Hedges Official Website, accessed 11/08):
The “Collection” grows and grows and grows. You possibly saw in the papers that I acquired that amazing Crystal Skull that was formerly in the “Sydney Burney Collection.” It is fashioned from a single block of transparent rock crystal, exactly life size; scientists put the date at pre-1800 B.C., and they estimate it took five generations passing from Father to son, to complete. It is anthropologically perfect in every detail, a superb piece of craftsmanship. There is only one other in the world known like it, which is in the British Museum and it is acknowledged to be not so fine as this.
The crystal skull remained with Frederick Mitchell-Hedges until his death in 1959, and with his adopted daughter until her death in April 2007.