Massive Bronze Age torc stolen from Ely Museum

One of the largest gold torcs ever discovered was stolen from the Ely Museum Tuesday. Thieves broke into the closed building in the wee hours on the morning of May 7th and stole the Bronze Age gold torc and a heavy gold bracelet from the same period. Only the two gold objects were taken.

Both of the stolen artifacts were found by metal detectorists in East Cambridgeshire. The solid gold bracelet was discovered in 2011. The torc was discovered in a recently ploughed field in September 2015. The four-flange spiral twisted bar torc is more than 4’10” long from trumpet terminal to trumpet terminal and weighs 732 grams (1.6 pounds). It dates to around 1300-1100 B.C. Not only is it exceptional for its size and weight, but also for its purity. Analysis found it is composed of 86-87% gold and 12-13% silver, which makes it 20-21 carat gold by today’s standards.

Dr Wilkin, who is responsible for the British Museum’s British and European Bronze Age Collection, described it as “one of the most important Bronze Age finds that’s ever been made in England”.

He said the torc is the “largest of its type in the whole of Europe” and its diameter is “larger than any adult male trousers that you can buy in a shop today”.

He speculated the torc could have been worn over bulky clothing or by a sacrificial animal but its use “remains a guessing game”.

At this time in the Bronze Age, people were no longer being buried with important objects – instead they deposited them at “important places in the landscape”.

Dr Wilkin said: “We don’t necessarily know why, but we think it was a gift to the gods, designed to secure good harvests or a healthy family. I’ve calculated you could probably make 10 smaller objects out of this one, so it’s a really big sacrifice of wealth and status.”

The Ely Museum acquired the torc in September 2017. After it was determined to be treasure at a coroner’s inquest, the British Museum’s valuation committee assessed its fair market value at £220,000 ($275,000). Local museums are given first crack at raising the sum, and the Ely Museum secured grants, including a large one of £138,600 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and donations from the public to reach the goal. A month later, the torc was on display at the Ely Museum, the pride and joy of its permanent collection.

Elie Hughes, curator at Ely Museum, said: “We are devastated by the loss to the museum and to the local heritage of the region. It is a huge blow after the incredible support from the community in acquiring the torc in 2017. As a culturally significant object, it cannot be replaced. Our priority now is working with the police to locate the stolen objects.”

The museum is housed in Ely’s Old Gaol building since 1997.  The 700-year-old building was extensively redeveloped to improve access, display space and security in 2021, so it’s not like its systems are old junk. The break-in was just swift and targeted. The worst part of this is that the torc is obviously completely unsalable. It is far too famous and unique to be passed off on the sly, and the odds of this being a commissioned theft for an unscrupulous private collector are miniscule. The real danger is that the priceless archaeological artifacts will be melted down for their mere gold value.

The Cambridgeshire Constabulary are investigating the crime. They are currently looking for two people seen on e-scooters in the vicinity of the museum between midnight and 2:00 AM Tuesday. Anybody with information can contact the police by dialing 101 in the UK or through its online chat service.

Boston museum returns Egyptian child sarcophagus to Sweden

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has returned an ancient Egyptian clay child sarcophagus to Uppsala University’s Museum Gustavianum more than 50 years after it was stolen under mysterious circumstances.

Made of alluvial clay, the sarcophagus dates to the 19th Dynasty (1295–1186 B.C.). It is 43 inches high and vividly painted. The child is depicted wearing a headdress of blue and yellow stripes tied with a headband of white, blue and red lotuses. Lotus petals cover the collar on his chest. The head and chest are on a cut-out section that can be removed to access the interior. Beneath the collar are more lotus flowers, wadjet eyes and the goddess Nut with outstretched wings flanked by Anubis seated jackals. The bottom part of the sarcophagus is covered with hieroglyphs identifying the deceased as a boy named Pa-nefer-neb.

The MFA Boston acquired it in 1985, and the ownership record seemed to be thorough and above-board, even at a time when museum’s paid zero attention to that sort of thing. It was sold by one Olaf Liden claiming to be an agent of Swedish artist Eric Ståhl (1918–1999). A letter ostensibly written by Ståhl described how he had personally discovered the sarcophagus in Amada, Egypt, in 1937, and the Egyptian government had later gifted it to him for his aid in the archaeological rescue operations before construction of the Aswan Dam. The coffin’s authenticity was attested to in writing by Swedish experts.

It was the MFA itself that realized this story was complete fiction, that Ståhl was never involved in any archaeological excavations in Egypt, that the letter and authentication documents were forged and the sarcophagus had been purloined from the Swedish museum, smuggled to Boston and fraudulently sold. The trigger was the 2008 publication of previously unseen photographs from the archive of the Petrie Museum. The sarcophagus was in one of the pictures: a shot of a 1920 archaeological excavation in Gurob, Egypt, by the British School of Archaeology under the direction of British archaeologist Flinders Petrie. A note with the photograph stated the coffin had been given to Uppsala University in 1922 as part of the partage system that was common at the time. All institutions involved in digs got a cut of the artifacts, basically, in exchange for their funding and fieldwork.

MFA curators initiated an investigation and contacted the Gustavianum to let them know about the discrepancy. Provenance researchers from both museums cooperated and shared information during the process. They found that the sarcophagus went missing from the museum’s stores in 1970 or earlier. It was not deaccessioned or traded. Both parties came to the same conclusion: the coffin had been taken from the Gustavianum illegally and should be returned.

“It is very gratifying that this return has now come to pass. The child’s sarcophagus is an important item in our collections and it means a lot to the museum and the University that it has now been returned to us. The sarcophagus is an excellent complement to our Egyptian collections and will now be available for research,” says Mikael Ahlund, Museum Director of Gustavianum, or Uppsala University Museum. “But the sarcophagus needs some work and it will be some time before it can be shown to the public in Gustavianum,” he adds.

You can see the petite coffin being unpacked upon its return to Sweden in this video. 

Thief of Ruby Slippers thought they were real rubies

The perpetrator of the daring 2005 smash-and-grab theft of a pair of Ruby Sippers from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, turns out to be surprisingly clueless. Terry Martin managed to steal the iconic shoes, one of only four surviving pairs of the slippers worn by Judy Garland playing Dorothy in 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz, in less than a minute and keep them under wraps for 13 years, even as authorities and fans never stopped searching for them. Despite this appearance of competence, according to a filing made by his lawyer before his sentencing Monday, Terry Martin thought the Ruby Slippers were festooned with actual rubies rather than dyed glass beads and sequins.

It beggars belief, but apparently Mr. Martin, who was 57 years old at the time of the theft and was born nine years after the movie’s initial theatrical release, figured they had to be real rubies to justify the million dollars they were insured for. His cunning plan was to pry the rubies off and sell them piecemeal so nobody would be able to trace their origin. He only realized his mistake when a jewel fence he took one of the beads to broke the news that it was made of glass.

Martin had dealt in stolen jewels and had spent time in prison for burglary, his lawyer said. But he had been out of prison for 10 years at the time of the theft and was living quietly in Grand Rapids, a small city 80 miles northwest of Duluth, when an “old mob associate” contacted him about “a job,” his lawyer wrote.

Martin was initially reluctant to get involved, DeKrey wrote. But “old Terry” beat out “new Terry,” and he gave in to the temptation for “one last score,” his lawyer said. […]

Martin used a hammer to smash two window panes in a door of the Judy Garland Museum and broke open a plexiglass case holding the shoes, leaving behind a single red sequin and no fingerprints, court documents said.

But less than two days later, when the unnamed person who traded in stolen jewels told Martin that the gems were worthless replicas, “Terry angrily decided to simply cut his losses and move on,” DeKrey wrote. “He gave the slippers to the associate who had recruited him for the job and told the man that he never wanted to see them again.”

He was serious about that. Martin was only busted in 2018 when other parties tried to blackmail the insurance company for hundreds of thousands of dollars in return for the shoes. The FBI recovered the slippers in a sting operation, but the blackmailers, who were probably organized crime figures, and the mobster who originally recruited Martin back in 2005 were not arrested. Martin refused to implicate anyone else. He just pled guilty to the theft and is facing his fate alone.

His sentence was gentle. Martin has COPD and is in the last months of his life. He was sentenced to time served, a year of probation and to pay the museum $23,000 in restitution for the theft.

Stolen Picasso and Chagall paintings found in Antwerp basement

Paintings by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall stolen from a private collection in Tel Aviv 14 years ago have been found in a basement in Antwerp, Belgium. The two paintings, Tête (1971) by Picasso and L’homme en prière (1970) by Chagall, then valued at $900,000, were taken from the villa of the Herzikovich family in February 2010. The thieves disabled the house’s sophisticated alarm system and broke into the safe to steal $680,000 worth of jewelry. They made off with the jewelry and the Picasso and Chagall pieces. There were other important artworks in the house which were not touched.

The case went cold until late 2022, when police in Namur, Belgium, were informed that a 68-year-old Israeli watch dealer residing in Namur was offering the two paintings for sale. The suspect, currently identified by authorities only as Daniel Z, was placed under surveillance in the attempt to confirm the information in the tipoff. Investigators were able to establish that he was indeed in possession of the stolen works.

On January 10, 2024, police raided Daniel Z’s home and detained him and his wife. They found large amounts of cash in the house, but not the paintings. The home of one of his relatives was also searched with nothing found. The suspect soon confessed to police that he had the Picasso and Chagall in his possession, but refused to tell them where they were hidden. Two days later, police searched another location: a building in Antwerp that once housed a sketchy art dealership connected to stolen paintings. There, in the cellar, the paintings were found inside two wooden boxes with screwed down lids. They were in undamaged condition in their original frames.

Daniel Z was arrested and charged with receiving stolen goods.

Lost pieces of Golden Tree of Lucignano found

Pieces of the Golden Tree of Lucignano, a monumental reliquary that is a masterpiece of medieval goldsmithing and widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian goldsmithing of any era, have been rediscovered 109 years after they were stolen. The pieces were found in a cave in the Arezzo area of central Tuscany after a tip from an elderly man. The region of Tuscany has now funded a full restoration of the Golden Tree to reintegrate the recovered elements into the original.

The Golden Tree is 8’10” high and more than three feet wide at its widest point. It was crafted of gilded copper, silver and enamel, and its branches decorated with corals, rock crystals and miniature illuminations on parchment. It was inspired by the Lignum Vitae (“wood of life”), a treatise written by Saint Bonaventure in the 1260s to aid Franciscans in devoting themselves to Christ by contemplating his life, passion and glorification. The structure of the tree served as a mnemonic device for monks to pursue the works of Christ in their daily meditation. Like Christ “nailed to a tree,” the Tree of Life ultimately bore the fruit of salvation. The lignum vitae concept took root (pun intended) in Franciscan communities and among lay readers, and it became a popular motif in medieval art.

It was created for the church of Saint Francis in Lucignano in two distinct phases, first in 1350 by an unknown goldsmith which recent studies suggest was from Arezzo, then expanded and completed in 1471 by the pre-eminent goldsmith of 15th century Siena, Gabriello D’Antonio, famed as the creator of the gilded silver reliquary containing the right arm of John the Baptist.

Medieval aesthetics privileged symbolic expressions of the divine. Precious materials — gold, silver, gemstones — were seen as expressions of God’s hand in creation. Their beauty mirrored the supreme beauty of God; the way they reflected light mirrored God’s radiance; they were closer to the divine, pure and incorruptible, unlike humble materials. Vivid colors and the shine of metal were considered lit by the incorporeal light of God. That’s why the gold-painted decorations in Bibles and liturgical books are called illuminations.

Ecclesiastic tradition held that objects of religious veneration like reliquaries and the Communion chalice and plate should be made of precious metals as metaphors for the divine. From the Carmina Ecclesiastica by the 7th century English abbot Aldhelm of Malmesbury:

The gold chalice covered with gems glitters, just as heaven set with burning stars glows, and the broad paten fashioned from silver matches: those which carry the divine remedies of our life.
(Song 3, Lines 72-5)

The Golden Tree took the metaphors of divinity in the precious materials even further. The entire tree was a metaphor for Christ. Its roots represented his birth, the trunk his Passion and the branches his resurrection. Its tripartite design was also symbolic of the Trinity. At the top of the tree is a depiction of Christ crucified on a branching tree that is a small version of the whole reliquary. Above the cross is a figure of a pelican in piety, also symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice.

It was Lucignano’s greatest treasure, and for centuries residents took their vows of marriage in front of it. In 1914, the Golden Tree was stolen and broken into pieces by the thieves for ease of transport and, presumably, resale, since the huge and iconic reliquary was obviously highly recognizable when intact. The pieces were cached in various hiding spots in the country around Sarteano, near Siena. A number of them were found and recovered between 1927 and 1929, but several of the most important elements — the crucifix, the pelican, a whole branch, four circular medallions, five silver plaques, three miniatures, several sprigs of coral — were not among them.

The recovered elements were reintegrated into the Golden Tree. The Royal Superintendence of Florence entrusted the complex restoration to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. More than 100 fragments had to be reattached, and replicas of the parts that were still missing were made based on old photographs taken in the 19th century. The illuminated parchment miniatures were unreproducible and were replaced with empty parchment rounds. The restoration was completed in 1933 and the reconstituted Golden Tree has been on display ever since.

After they were tipped off to the possible location of pieces of the Golden Tree earlier this year, the Carabinieri Art Squad recovered:

  • Five plaques of gilded copper and silver, engraved and enameled, that were originally mounted on the back of branch medallions. They depict saints and angels. Much of the enamel is lost, unfortunately, with only a few traces remaining.
  • One parchment illuminated with portrait of a prophet, about half of the portrait remaining.
  • One polished rock crystal with traces of gold and pigment that once covered a miniature. Its convex shape enlarged the portrait, functioning like a magnifying glass.
  • 16 figures of saints in silver foil made in the 17th century that decorated the base.

The Opificio delle Pietre Dure has again been tasked with the challenge of reintegrating the newly-rediscovered pieces. The Golden Tree will be dismantled in batches so that the main part of the reliquary can remain on display throughout the process. If all goes well, Opificio restorers hope the work will be completed by the end of next spring.