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 4,000-year-old tomb rediscovered in Ireland

A local folklorist has discovered the remnants of a Bronze Age tomb that was believed to have been destroyed in the mid-19th century. The megalithic structure known as Altóir na Gréine (the altar of the sun) was built on top of a hill outside the village of Ballyferriter, County Kerry, about 4,000 years ago. It was a wedge tomb, a funerary monument containing the cinerary remains of a family or community group but may also have been used for other ceremonial purposes. This style of tomb is typically oriented to the west or southwest and may have had a cosmological connection to the setting sun, hence its traditional appellation.

It was still intact in 1838 when it was visited as a local attraction by Victorian writer and world traveler Lady Georgiana Chatterton. She recounted her visit, complete with a sketch of the “sun altar,” in her best-selling travel memoir Rambles in the South of Ireland.

On the top of the hill were the remains of a very curious piece of antiquity, once an altar, supposed to have been used for offering sacrifices to the sun. We heartily wished we could have had an opportunity of telling the sun, before hand, of our intention of visiting his altar; for a more thick, penetrating rain I think never was experiences, than fell to our lot while poking over the remains of the old stones, and taking the sketch which is here given.

Inspired by Lady Chatterton’s record of her ramble, Kerry antiquarian Richard Hitchcock visited the hill site in 1852 seeking what he called the cromleac (literally “bent stone” meaning a megalithic tomb with two standing stones topped by a capstone) that she had sketched.

I regret to say that this cromleac, or, as Lady Chatterton calls it, “sun altar,” does not now exist, the stones which composed it having been broken and carried away for building purposes, as if there were no others in the neighbourhood! It is, however, fortunate that we have even a small engraving of the monument preserved to us.

That last line proved prescient. The location of the lost tomb disappeared from collective memory and nobody had ever noted its coordinates when it was still apparent on the landscape. It was Lady Chatterton’s sketch that bore mute witness to its presence 185 years later when folklorist Billy Mag Fhloinn came across megalithic stones on a tomb-mapping project on the Dingle peninsula run by Sacred Heart University. He was very familiar with the drawing and specifically had it in mind when he climbed the hill looking for the long-lost Altóir na Gréine and filmed the stones he saw there.

When converting the video into a 3D scan he noticed that a stone in the undergrowth resembled one from Lady Chatterton’s Victorian-era sketch.

He sent the material to the National Monuments Service in Dublin, which dispatched archaeologist Caimin O’Brien, who confirmed it belonged to a so-called wedge tomb dating from the early bronze age between 2500BC and 2000 BC.

There is a capstone and several large upright stones called orthostats, comprising about a quarter of the original tomb, Mag Fhloinn said on Thursday. “People had assumed it was all destroyed.”

Met acquires large Tiffany window by Agnes Northrop

A spectacular three-part window created by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s renowned glass studio and designed by Agnes Northrop has been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The monumental windows adorned the Great Hall of Linden Hall, the stately home of in Dawson, Pennsylvania, before they were sold and disappeared into a private collection in 2005. Now they will return to public view.

Agnes Northrop, Tiffany Garden Landscape Window (1912). Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As part of the Museum’s American Wing 100th anniversary, the window will be installed in the Charles Engelhard Court beginning November 2024. The window will be dramatically framed by the columns from Laurelton Hall, Tiffany’s Long Island country estate.

The window was commissioned by Sarah Cochran, a former housemaid who married Philip Cochran, the son and sole heir to a coal fortune, and thus became lady of the estate she had once cleaned. She was widowed young and their son died while still in college, so she took on management of the family’s complex business interests, earning her the sobriquet “Coal Queen.” At the same time, she traveled around Europe seeking inspiration, furnishings and antiques for the new home she was having built back in Pennsylvania.

Construction of Linden Hall began in 1911. Sarah commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany to create the stained glass windows for the great hall in 1912. Agnes Northrop, one of Tiffany’s most prominent female designers who started in the 1880s as one the “Tiffany Girls,” the group of women who created some of the glassworks’ most iconic designs for windows, lamps and other decorative pieces that have gone down in history as the signature Tiffany style.

Northrop was the head of the design crew for a short time, before graduating to working on solo projects in her own office. She pioneered the stained-glass landscape windows of iridescent glass, designed them first in gouache watercolor and pencil, before the glass was created from her designs at the Louis Comfort Tiffany studio in New York. Northrop’s gouache of the central window for the Linden Hall commission is already in the collection of the Met and has been since 1967.

The finished window was so spectacular that Louis Comfort Tiffany briefly put it on display in his Manhattan showroom at 37th Street and Fifth Avenue before it was installed at Linden Hall. The lush flowers, tree-lined arbor, formal garden with central fountain and mountain pine forests on the horizon were designed to mimic Linden’s actual gardens. Light and colored flooded into the Great Hall through the northern exposure windows.

Sarah Cochran died in 1936, bequeathing Linden to her brother. It passed through several hands over the next few decades, include an order of monks, before the current owners, the United Steelworkers Union, bought the estate in 1976. In 2005, the USU sold the windows to a private buyer for $6.8 million, replacing them with simple clear panes decorated with a heraldry crest in the middle of each panel. The union explained this seemingly inexplicable decision as unfortunate but necessary as the astronomical costs of insuring the Tiffany windows became increasingly unaffordable.

For nearly two decades the Linden Hall Garden Landscape was out of view. Earlier this year, funds from a variety of donors made it possible for the Garden Landscape to be brought back into the light for all to see two miles south of where it had once graced the Tiffany Studios showroom.

Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO, said: “This stunning work of art is an extraordinary example of the transformational creativity of Agnes Northrop and Tiffany Studios. Magnificent in concept and execution and more than grand in size, it deepens the American Wing’s Tiffany holdings and will enhance the already stunning Engelhard Court with a powerful, immersive viewing experience.”

Last day of WWI frozen in ice cave

Objects left behind on the last day of World War and literally frozen in time in an underground cave shelter high in the Alps are now being explored by archaeologists.

The artificially barracked cave was built by a small contingent of Austro-Hungarian troops in the summer of 1915. They had taken this vertiginous point on top of Mount Scorluzzo more than 10,000 feet above sea level to wrest control of the strategically essential Stelvio Pass on the border between Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Italy had failed to garrison the pass so Imperial troops took it unopposed in June and quickly set to fortifying their position.

Despite several attempts by Italian forces to retake Mount Scorluzzo during the course of the war, Austria held it until the end. The Mount Scorluzzino cave shelter was part of a network of concrete, stone and wood defenses built by the Austro-Hungarian army. They dug out the cave at right angles to the slope of the mountain and built a trench leading to an observatory over the pass. The shelter had a stove, a dormitory that slept about 20 and a room with a cot and a stool behind a wood panel that served as the commander’s quarters. The shelter was abandoned after the Armistice of Villa Giusti ended the war between Austria-Hungary and the Allied powers on November 3rd, 1918.

The winter snows over the next few years sealed it in, making the cave inaccessible to all but a handful of highly motivated relic hunters. Water penetrated the deepest part of the shelter, freezing and preserving the contents for a century.

Climate change began to melt the surface of the thick glacial ice, and the first wood structures of the barracks of the larger Scorluzzo shelter near the cave were spotted in 2015. The rapidly retreating glacier made it possible for archaeologists to excavate Scorluzzo, and from 2017 to 2019, more than 300 objects — uniforms, munitions, lanterns, documents, personal belongings — were recovered. In 2020, the entire structure was dismantled timber by timber and moved by helicopter to Bormio where it would be reconstructed in a museum.

The Scorluzzino cave shelter, however, has only begun to be thoroughly documented and excavated, and it is shedding new light on the little known details of the White War (the Alpine front during World War I).

We now know that the Austro-Hungarian army, so far from the sea, used straw-filled sacks not with straw but with algae, well-suited for their antiseptic properties. An impressive logistical chain that started in Istria and reached an altitude of 2,995 meters. Even where La Guerra Bianca (The White War, in the Alps) made military presence sparser, Italian propaganda dropped irredentist newspapers in the trenches. The ice has preserved newspaper pages, notes, and correspondence. There are chargers for repeating weapons, standard-issue shovels, nails to hang cartridge pouches, and the pouches themselves. Food tins scraped clean due to hunger, with apricot kernels split to eat the contents, a clear sign of starvation. All this in the 12 meters of depth carved into the rock, three meters wide and about two meters high, entirely lined with carefully crafted Val Venosta wood that still proudly fulfills its function, albeit compromised in some places after years.

This video (in Italian with English subtitles) gives a guided tour of this icy time capsule.

Vasa in dire need of support

The Swedish royal warship Vasa, meant to be the flagship of King Gustav II Adolf’s new powerful naval fleet, sank 400 from the dock in Stockholm bay on its maiden voyage in 1628. It was raised from the sea bed in 1961, preserved by the cold waters in eerily good condition. It was conserved for 27 years at the Wasa Shipyard before moving into its permanent home at the custom-built Vasa Museum in 1988. It has been one of Sweden’s top tourist destinations ever since, drawing upwards of one million visitors a year.

Now, 395 years after it went down the first time, Vasa is sinking again. The steel shoring struts that have been supporting it since 1964 are insufficient to bear the ship’s great weight, and worse than that, the cradle is putting pressure on the fragile timbers, cracking and warping them. Vasa is continuously being monitored and measured to detect any potential conservation issues, and the data show it is sinking downwards and outwards at a very slow, but very steady rate of a millimeter a year. As gradual as the shifting is, if uninterrupted, the ship will start falling apart.

The Vasa Museum has undertaken a wide-ranging investigation to discover what kind of pressures Vasa‘s wooden structure can stand, teaming with researchers from Uppsala University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the KTH Royal Institute of Technology and other institutions. They have identified several decomposition processes that are causing the wood to deteriorate much more rapidly than it did in the cold, brackish waters of the Baltic. The current strength of the ship’s timbers is no more than 40% the level of normal oak.

In such a weakened state, the timbers are simply incapable of bearing the weight of the rebuilt ship. To address this fatal structural instability, the Vasa Museum team is going back to the drawing board, redesigning the support structure starting with a new internal support system that will rest on a new external support. The internal structure will be a framework of pipes that will unobtrusively add load-bearing strength and lock the ship into shape, preventing that constant movement downwards and outwards. The external supports will be streamlined and strengthened and then connected to the internal support network.

This is an absolutely huge project and unfortunately it cannot be accomplished without making changes to the ship itself. Parts of the interior will have to be removed and placed in storage to make way for the new internal structure. New holes will have to be drilled into the hull. Even the floor underneath it will need to be reinforced.

“It’s a big job,” said [project director Magnus] Olofsson. “We have already been researching for four years to see how we are going to do it, and then we’ve been working on construction drawings for four years and now we are beginning the build, which will also take about four years.”

They have being carrying out test operations on full-scale models to make sure their plan will work. They do not, however, know exactly how much the vessel weighs. They estimate between 900 and 1,000 tonnes.

But the project is coming at a substantial cost, which the self-funded museum is appealing to donors and sponsors to finance. The museum’s director, Jenny Lind, said she was hopeful the Swedish public would come through to raise the funds to embark on the ship’s “biggest challenge” since its salvage and conservation.

“When Vasa was salvaged, the whole of Swedish society came together and made it possible to salvage this ship. It wasn’t just the state, it was private companies, big actors in society that helped out, but also private individuals,” she said. “So that’s why we’re coming out again and saying we need help again.”

Right now the Vasa Museum is not set up for easy online donations, just bank transfers (information here) and contributions via the Swish app (info here).