Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

I kicked off 2020 in auspicious style with a bracing winter morning guided hike in a nature preserve. Because there is no rest unto the history nerd, the area turns out to have been quarried for granite in the 19th century. There were several quarry pits, once blasted to blocks, now picturesque views for random passersby.

Even in the steam age, those quarry pits were worked only with immense effort, and at this site for granite that was of mediocre quality at best, good for curbing and trimming. The clifftops had to be cleared of copious vegetation, a seam in the granite identified, holes drilled in it and black power packed into them to blast open the seam. Blocks weighing tens of tons were raised with wooden derricks and shifted to cutting sheds to be sized, shaped and polished to order.

When the industry died in the 1920s, its lifeblood choked off by the sudden spike in demand for black powder and soldiers during World War I, the quarry operators didn’t bother clearing out all that heavy iron and wood equipment. The result is things like this in the middle of a rare pine pitch barren preserve.

One of the hikers called it a “boom,” but I have no idea what that is in a 19th century quarrying context.

May your New Year be full of happy accidental history!

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V&A acquires flea market porcelain treasure

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

An 18th century “holy grail” of English porcelain sculpture discovered at a flea market in France has been acquired by the V&A (pdf). The 8-inch figure was found in southwest Brittany by retired English porcelain dealer Louis Woodford in 2011. He recognized its significance as an early and unique example of London porcelain manufactured by the Chelsea porcelain factory around 1746–49. There is only one other extant example of this design is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, but its original white glaze has been altered with colored enamel decoration.

It was produced during the Chelsea porcelain factory’s earliest years, the triangle period (1743-1749), named after the incised triangle-shaped mark on the bottom of the wares. The milky white, shiny, glass-like glaze with surface pitting was typical of this period. The figure was slipcast in porcelain from the original clay model sculpted by premier London sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac.

Born in Lyon, France, in 1702, Roubiliac learned his trade under Baroque sculptor Balthasar Permoser in Dresden before studying under Nicolas Coustou in Paris. He moved to London in around 1730 and worked for established sculptors before striking out on his own with a statue of Handel in 1738. Commissioned for Vauxhall Gardens, the statue was instantly famous, widely reproduced in prints for decades, elevating Roubiliac to the top echelon of sculptors in London and ensuring a thriving career primarily in portrait commissions. All of his known surviving works were made in London.

Art historical and stylistic analysis strongly suggest that Roubiliac was the creator of the original model for Head of a Laughing Child. Roubiliac was a friend of Nicholas Sprimont, the owner and founder of the Chelsea porcelain factory, and evidence suggests Roubiliac considered using Chelsea porcelain for a major sculptural commission in the first few months of the factory’s opening. Additionally, the quality of modelling and the style of the Head, which combines Italianate, French and German influences, all point to Roubiliac as the author of the work. This is supported by documentary evidence revealing Roublilac’s roots and training in both France and Dresden, where he acquired extensive knowledge of Ancient Roman and Baroque sculpture.

Roubiliac would have sculpted the head in clay approximately 20 per cent bigger than the resulting porcelain figure. From this model, multi-part plaster moulds were taken at the Chelsea porcelain factory and then used to cast several versions of the head in porcelain. These were then carefully dried in a process that saw them shrink considerably. The porcelain heads were then glazed and fired at a high temperature.

Sprimont was godfather to Roubiliac’s daughter Sophie. It’s possible that the joyous young woman captured in porcelain was modeled after Sophie. She was born in 1744 and would have been between two and five years old when the sculpture was made.

The Vauxhall Gardens statue of Handel is now in the collection of the V&A, as is another Chelsea porcelain based on a terracotta original by Roubiliac, a portrait of William Hogarth’s beloved pug, Trump. The newly acquired Head of a Laughing Child has gone on display with them in the V&A’s British Galleries.

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Stolen Klimt found in garden wall of gallery it was stolen from

Friday, December 13th, 2019

A uniquely important painting by Gustav Klimt that was stolen in 1997 from the Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art in Piacenza has been found in the garden wall of said gallery. On Tuesday, December 10th, maintenance workers discovered a metal door while cleaning ivy off the wall. Behind the door was a niche filled with rocks and metal scraps. Resting on the debris was a black plastic garbage bag. Inside the trash bag was Portrait of a Lady, painted by Gustav Klimt in 1917 and estimated to be worth $66 million.

Jonathan Papamerenghi, a member of the Piacenza council with responsibility for culture, did not exclude the possibility that the painting had been left in the wall by thieves who wanted to return it.

“It is very strange, because, immediately after the theft, every single inch of the gallery and garden was checked with a fine-tooth comb,” he told La Repubblica. “The strangest thing is that the painting is in excellent condition. It does not seem like it has been locked under a trapdoor for 22 years.”

It can’t have been. At least not unless the thieves rebagged it, because the company that made the garbage bag only came into existence a decade after the theft.

Portrait of a Lady was a focal point of the Ricci Oddi Gallery before there even was a gallery. Collector Giuseppe Ricci Oddi donated his prized collection of artworks to the city in 1924 and construction began on the gallery. Between then and its inauguration in 1931, Oddi continued to buy art, purposely seeking out pieces that would fill blanks in his collection and enhance the artistic value of the new gallery. Klimt’s painting was one of those key purchases.

Authorities don’t know exactly when the painting was stolen. The theft was discovered the morning of Saturday, February 22nd, but the police think the theft took place three days earlier. How an art gallery could be unaware their greatest masterpiece was missing is a weird, complicated tale that wouldn’t be out of place in a novel.

It begins a year earlier in 1996 when 18-year-old art student, Claudia Maga, noticed that Portrait of a Lady bore distinct similarities to another work by Klimt, Portrait of a Young Lady, missing since 1912. The pose, proportions and even the beauty mark on the cheek were identical. She contacted the gallery’s director and they had the painting X-rayed at the local hospital. It confirmed the accuracy of Maga’s keen eye: the lost portrait was underneath. Apparently Klimt had painted over it out of grief when the model, his lover and muse, died suddenly.

This discovery made the Ricci Oddi Gallery the proud owner of the only known double portrait by Gustav Klimt. They immediately planned a dedicated exhibition at another location in the center of the city while the gallery building itself was undergoing renovations. Paintings were boxed up and put in storage. Doors were unlocked, the security system turned off and a stream of workers went about their business.

On February 22nd, gallery staff realized the Lady was gone, not boxed up, not stored, not moved to a temporary location, but stolen. The only clue was the paintings heavy gilded frame left behind by the thief. It was found on the roof next to a skylight with an opening around the perimeter. Police hypothesized that the frame had been hooked by a fishing line and the painting reeled up and out through the skylight, an outlandishly improbable scenario that proved impossible when the heavy frame was found to be too large to fit through the skylight’s opening.

The investigation took several turns after that A fingerprint was found on the frame. A forgery turned up on April Fool’s Day 1997. Years later an art thief claimed the stolen painting had in fact been stolen months earlier and replaced by a copy and the copy was then stolen to cover up the fact that it was a copy. The stolen original had been sold for bundles of cash and kilos of cocaine. The stolen copy would be returned on the anniversary of the theft. DNA was found on the frame in 2016. All leads fizzled out.

Given the copy of a copy story and the oddness of the garden wall find site, confirming the authenticity of the portrait is of the utmost priority. All indicators are positive however: the wax stamp, gallery stamp and the period labels on the back of the canvas appear to be original.

The Ricci Oddi has been inundated with requests for more information since the news broke. They haven’t been able to disclose much of anything while the painting is still being officially authenticated and the police investigation is ongoing. To quench the public thirst, they have set up a page on their website that they will update with news as it becomes available.

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Napoleon’s boots sell for $128,000

Sunday, December 1st, 2019

A pair of boots worn by Napoleon Bonaparte sold for 117,208 euros ($128,000) at a Paris auction on Friday. It more than doubled the low end of the pre-sale estimate (50,000-80,000 euros). The black Morocco leather boots were made by Jacques on the rue de Montmartre, Napoleon’s preferred and much-patronized boot maker. They are just shy of 19 inches high and a European size 40 (US size 7). Small feet apparently ran in the family.

Contrary to the short man complex that bears his name, Napoleon was taller than average for his time. The average height for a man born in France in 1800 was 164 centimeters (5’4″). Napoleon was 169 centimeters, or 5’7″. The idea that he was very short was promoted by British satirists in political cartoons and caricatures during his life, and after his death by confusion over units of measurement. His physician on Saint Helena, François Carlo Antommarchi, recorded his height as “5 pieds, 2 pouces, 4 lignes,” using the pre-Revolutionary French system of measurement. That was erroneously transliterated into 5’2″ in English measurements when in fact it adds up to 168.6 centimeters.

The boots have an impeccable record of ownership proving their authenticity. After Napoleon’s death, the boots went to General Henri-Gatien Bertrand, one of his most loyal officers who had accompanied Napoleon in exile both to Elba and Saint Helen’s. Bertrand fought for nigh on two decades to get the French government to accede to Napoleon’s final wishes that he be buried in Paris. In 1840, Bertrand’s efforts paid off and Napoleon’s remains were exhumed from Saint Helen’s, shipped to France, given a grand funeral parade through Paris and reburied with full military honors at Les Invalides.

In 1842, sculptor Carlo Marochetti was commissioned to create an equestrian statue the emperor for the Esplanade des Invalides, and Bertrand lent him the boots to use as models. The sculpture never was installed. Bertrand died in 1844. The boots passed to the sculptor’s son, Baron Marochetti, who in turn gave them to Senator Paul Le Roux. They have been in the Le Roux family until now.

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World’s first Christmas card goes on display at Dickens Museum

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

One of only 21 surviving examples of the first commercial Christmas card has gone on display at London’s Charles Dickens Museum. On loan from a San Francisco book dealer, the card is part of a new exhibition dedicated to the dawn of Christmas as marketing and commerce bonanza ushered in by the publication of A Christmas Carol.

The card was created by Sir Henry Cole, a British civil servant who would gain renown as the organizer of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851 and the founder of the V&A Museum. He was also one of the most dedicated advocates of postal reform. He was secretary of the reform committee, editor of their newsletter, the Post Circular, and from 1837 to 1840, the assistant of the leader of the post office reform movement, educator Rowland Hill. The Uniform Penny Post was introduced throughout the UK on January 10th, 1840.

In 1843, the same year Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol thus inadvertently (and to his later regret) launching the modern commodified Christmas we all know and love to hate, Henry Cole commissioned his friend narrative painter and illustrator John Calcott Horsley to design a convivial Christmas card he could send to family, friends and acquaintances alike. Horsley designed a triptych: the center panel depicting a family raising beverages of a spirituous nature, two side panels of charitable distribution of clothing and food to the poor. The joyous family noel was captioned “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.” The images were lithographed on cardstock and the center panel was hand-colored.

Horsley printed a lot of 1,000 of them and the ones Cole didn’t use went on sale to the public for a shilling apiece (a week’s pay for the average working man) in Old Bond Street, London. They were expensive for regular folks and the idea didn’t take hold right away, hence the small number of surviving originals. One of them set a new record price for a card when it sold at auction in 2001 for £22,500. It was sent by Cole to his grandmother and aunt and bears his signature, hence the record.

Five years would pass before the second commercially printed Christmas card would hit the market, but after that there was no stopping it. As happened with Valentines, the practice of sending preprinted commercial Christmas cards exploded in Britain in the second half of the 19th century. The lithography printing process made increasingly colorful cards affordable for everyone and the penny post made sending them cheap, fast and reliable.

The United States was a slow adopter of the Christmas card. Cole’s family scene involved a little too much of the demon liquor — check out that baby hitting the wine glass in the center front — for American bourgeois sensibilities. The first commercial Christmas card published in the US for general purchase (as opposed to business promotional cards) was created by Louis Prang in Boston in 1874. At first he was selling them in England where cards were firmly established as a hit; then he introduced them to the US market He hit the ground running. Using the chromolithography process which allowed him to use up to 30 different colors on a single print with fine details creating realistic illustrations of hair and mistletoe and textile patterns and roaring fires, by 1881 he was selling five million Prang’s Christmas Cards a year. His fortunes would ebb at the turn of the century when German postcard makers would flood the US market with much cheaper imitations. Prang refused to cut corners and continued to use the highest quality stock and inks. In 1897 L. Prang & Company merged with an art company and got out of the Christmas card business. Cheap German cards would dominate the US market until World War I.

Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas runs through the season, ending April 19th, 2020.

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Museum acquires only known antebellum image of slaves with cotton

Sunday, November 24th, 2019

The only known antebellum image of enslaved African-Americans with cotton has been acquired  by the Hall Family Foundation for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. The quarter plate daguerreotype was sold at Cowan’s American History auction in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 15th and blew past the pre-sale estimate of $100,000 – $150,000 for a hammer price of  $260,000 ($324,500 including buyer’s premium).

The daguerreotype, still in its original leather case, was taken in the 1850s and is a posed tableau centered on three slaves carrying large baskets of cotton on their heads. In total there are 10 African-American enslaved individuals in the image, including several children. Behind them is a two-story house with front and rear galleries supported by posts. A log cabin is in the front right, perhaps a smokehouse or slave cabin. A crude well with a large timber crank mechanism is in the front center. A man in a top hat on the left is likely the owner.

Images of enslaved people working on the cotton plantations of Georgia and the Carolinas are extant, but they were captured by photographers who traveled south with the Union Army. They were taken at the large coastal planters owned by the wealthiest elites and worked by hundreds of slaves. This daguerreotype depicts slavery at a rural holding, the type of small-scale operation that was typical for the vast majority of slaveholders.

The daguerreotype was discovered in estate of Charles Gentry, Jr., after his death in Austin, Texas, in 2012. It was in good condition, but needed conservation to remove tape residue and dirt and to re-glaze and rebind the plate. The hinges of the case were also repaired.

Gentry was originally from Polk County, Georgia, so researchers investigated the origin of the image, they turned to the census and Slave Schedule records pertaining to the Gentry family in Georgia. Of several Gentrys living in Georgia in the decade before the Civil War, only one owned at least 10 slaves: Samuel T. Gentry of Greene County. The Federal Slave Schedules list him as owning between 15 and 18 men, women and children between 1850 and 1860.

“This piece—a record of the historical crime of slavery—is remarkable both for the power of its content and for its technical and aesthetic sophistication,” said [Keith F. Davis, Senior Curator, Photography, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art]. “This is an unforgettable rendition of an era, and a way of life, that must never be forgotten or forgiven. At the same time, it markedly expands our understanding of the history of American photography. We have long believed that daguerreotypes such as this ‘should’ have been made in the 1850s; now we know that at least one actually was.”

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240-year-old oak falls at Mount Vernon

Saturday, November 23rd, 2019

A white oak at Mount Vernon that was a witness to history from the time of George Washington has fallen. The oak was 115 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter and was at least 240 years old when it fell down across a road through the woods on the night of November 4th. There was no storm, not even any wind.  The tree wasn’t rotten, damaged or diseased. It was the oak equivalent of dying peacefully in its sleep.

Dean Norton, Mount Vernon’s director of horticulture, counted the rings from the cut trunk and conservatively dated the oak to at least 1780. It might be even older. (Some of the rings blend into each other and can’t be precisely counted.)

Norton said there is also a possibility that Washington had purposely transplanted the tree from the local woods. It had stood in what looked like a man-made triangle of three trees, all the same age, all the same kind, and never cut down.

“To me, they were intentionally, not only planted, but saved,” he said.

The other two are already gone. The first fell about 40 years ago; the second in August of last year. The three were near a road about a half-mile west of the mansion, Norton said.

Mount Vernon was treated as neutral ground during the Civil War, but all three of these oaks were informally enlisted on the Union side. A star and a cross, insignia of two Union Army corps, were carved into the bark of the three oaks in 1865. The five-pointed star and Latin cross can still be seen on the fallen trunk, albeit less distinctly. An archival photograph from 1932 shows them more distinctly, and a curatorial note attributes them to a New York regiment that visited Mount Vernon while it was in Washington, D.C. for the Grand Review of the Armies in May 1865. This was the last tree still standing at Mount Vernon with Civil War carvings in its bark.

Mount Vernon was a mecca for soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. George Washington was a revered native son of Virginia as well as the first President of the United States, so Union and Confederate soldiers alike had reason to pay their respects. It was an immensely popular attraction for Union troops in particular. An estimated 200 Federal regiments visited Mount Vernon from 1861 to 1865.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which had acquired the dangerously dilapidated mansion and 200 acres of the property from John Augustine Washington III in 1858 and taken possession in 1860, had members from north and south and consciously eschewed all partisanship. Their sole goal was to repair the estate, which was literally falling apart and propped up by repurposed ships’ masts, and honor Washington’s legacy. When Civil War broke out and Virginia seceded from the Union in the spring of 1861, MVLA regent Ann Pamela Cunningham declared that Mount Vernon should be neutral territory, that any troops, Union or Confederate, who visited should not be armed or uniformed.

Her wishes were conveyed to all soldiers in the area and respected to the best of their abilities. In a May 2nd, 1861 letter to Cunningham, her secretary Sarah Tracy reported:

[The troops] have behaved very well about it. Many of them come from a great distance and have never been here, and have no clothes but their uniforms. They borrow shawls and cover up their buttons and leave their arms outside the enclosures, and never come but two or three at a time. That is as much as can be asked of them.”

Union General Winfield Scott made it a formal policy that Mount Vernon was to be left alone in General Order 13, issued on July 31, 1861:

Should the operations of our war take the United States troops in that direction, the General Officer does not doubt that every man will approach with due reverence, and leave undisturbed, not only the Tomb, but also the house, groves and walks which were so loved by the best and greatest of men.

The fallen oak will remain at Mount Vernon, indeed will become even more a part of it as it will be used by the preservation department to make necessary repairs.

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Whole historic log cabin found inside house during demolition

Thursday, November 21st, 2019

A whole log cabin dating to the Civil War or immediate antebellum period was discovered inside an existing house that was being demolished in Prescott, Arkansas. The 18 x 20-foot cabin was kept whole and encapsulated with new siding between 1953 and 1955 when it was moved entire to its current location on Greenlawn Street.

Property records indicate the log cabin originally built on Miller Hill on land belonging to one John Vaughn. The records would suggest it dates to 1850s or 1860s and the timbers are roughly hand-hewn, which dates them to before the arrival of the railroad and the mill-sawn timber it brought to the area in the 1870s. Miller Hill was next to the 30-square-mile plain that as of April 12th, 1864, would become known as the Prairie D’Ane battlefield, now part of the Camden Expedition Sites National Historic Landmark. This log cabin could well have been mute witness to the Union victory at Prairie D’Ane. An archaeologist has been enlisted to authenticate the building and date it as precisely as possible.

Demolition is obviously no longer on the cards. The Nevada County Depot & Museum has acquired the log cabin thanks to a donation from local residents Dr. Michael and Bo Young. The museum plans to dismantle the cabin piece by piece, number each timber, conserve and stabilize them and store them until the structure can be reconstructed on the Prairie D’Ane Battlefield. A new visitors center will be built at the site in the next couple of years. The log cabin will be reassembled inside the new building to keep it safe from the elements and open to visitors.

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Babylonian stew

Monday, November 18th, 2019

An international team of food scientists, culinary historians and cuneiform experts have recreated the four oldest known recipes found on cuneiform tablets in the Yale Babylonian Collection. The three oldest tablets date to the Old Babylonian period, around 1730 B.C., the fourth to the Neo-Babylonian period about a thousand years later.

There are multiple recipes on each tablet. One of the oldest three lists a collection of 25 stews, mostly ingredients with brief instructions for preparing the food. The other two have more detailed recipes, but the quantities are rarely noted. Each of the tablets has suffered damage over the millennia, making it even harder to figure out to cook authentic ancient Babylonian dishes.

The tablets have been on display for years but the old translations of the cuneiform were in need of reinterpretation to make them work in a kitchen. The culinary experts and cuneiform scholars collaborated to identify some of the herbs and other ingredients in the recipes, and then through a process of trial and error, they were recreated this spring in preparation for a tasting symposium hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and Department of Nutrition and Food Studies.

The Yale-Harvard team wanted to keep as closely as possible to the original dishes, an ambitious goal considering how sparse some of the surviving instructions are and damage to the tablets themselves. The availability of ingredients was also a challenge.

The Yale-Harvard team prepared three recipes which were all from one tablet: two lamb stews — one with beets and one with milk and cakes of grain — and a vegetarian recipe enriched with beer bread.

The variety of ingredients, complex preparation, and cooking staff required to create these meals suggest that they were intended for the royal palace or temple — the haute cuisine of Mesopotamia, says Lassen. Few cooks were able to read cuneiform script, she adds, hence the recipes were most likely recorded to document the current practices of culinary art.

“This event gave us the opportunity to really connect with the people from that time,” says Graham. “By experiencing some of the processes that they would have used to cook these recipes and to taste the flavors that were prominent and popular then, you feel closer to the culture and the people, and I think that helps us to tell their story. It is interesting to think of all the tools we are aided by now and how cooking these recipes is so much easier for us than it was for them.” […]

While some of the Babylonian recipes were attempted prior to the event, one was new to the team and was prepared for the first time at the event. Called the “unwinding,” it is a vegetarian stew made with leek and onion. Lassen says that there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for this name, but that one hypothesis suggests it has to do with one of the stew’s ingredients, dried lumps of crushed grains that were “almost like hard cakes that you add to the stew and then it melts into the stew,” says Lassen. “That could be ‘unwinding.’ It could also simply be a more literal word for a comfort food.”

“Making a stew is a very basic human thing and I think that is one of the reasons that we really went into this project,” says Lassen. “There is something really human about eating and food and tasting things, and that’s what we wanted to explore by recreating these recipes. Maybe not entirely as they as they would have prepared it — maybe our ingredients taste a little bit different — but still approximating something that nobody has tasted for almost 4,000 years.”

If you’d like to try your hand at Babylonian cuisine, here are the four recipes translated from the cuneiform. 

Unwinding

Meat is not used. You prepare water. You add fat. (You add) kurrat, cilantro, salt as desired, leek, garlic. You pound up dried sourdough, you sift (it) and you scatter (it) over the pot before removing it.

Stew of lamb

Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. [You crush] (and add) leek and garlic.

Elamite Broth

Meat is not used. You prepare water. You add fat. Dill, kurrat, cilantro, leek, and garlic bound with blood, a corresponding amount of sour milk, and (more) garlic. The (original) name (of this dish) is Zukanda.

Tuh’u

Leg meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You sear. You fold in salt, beer, onion, arugula, cilantro, Persian shallot, cumin and red beet, and [you crush] leek and garlic. You sprinkle coriander on top. [You add] kurrat and fresh cilantro.

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Ring gifted by Oscar Wilde found 20 years after theft

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

An 18-carat-gold inscribed gold ring that was a gift from Oscar Wilde to a friend during his undergraduate days at Magdalen College in Oxford will be returning to its alma mater 17 years after it was stolen.

The inside is engraved “O.F.O.F.W.W & R.R.H. to W.W.W., 1876,” the initials of gifters and receiver: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, Reginald Richard Harding and William Welsford Ward, respectively. The three were close friends as undergraduates in Magdalen’s classics program. Ward was a year ahead of Wilde and he sort of took him under his wing, introducing him to his friends, to Freemasonry, going on rides through the woods where they argued about philosophy so vigorously that Wilde often fell off his horse. It was Ward, known as “Bouncer,” who introduced him to Harding, aka “Kitten.” Wilde’s nickname in this crew was “Hosky.”

Ward took his final exams in November 1876 and while he did well, he did not receive the First he expected. Instead of returning to Oxford as a fellow, Bouncer decided to go walkabout and travel to Italy. Hosky and Kitten had the friendship ring made as a memento of their happy trio. The inscription on the outside read in Greek: “Gift of love, to one who wishes love.”

The ring was part of the extensive collection of Oscar Wilde memorabilia held by his alma mater, Oxford University’s Magdalen College. It was stolen in the wee hours of Thursday, May 2nd, 2002, by one Eamonn Andrews aka Anderson, a former Magdalen cleaner and handyman who, fortified with copious quantities of whisky downed at the college bar, broke into the Old Library through a skylight on a drunken mission to find evidence his estranged wife, the head gardener at Magdalen, had had an affair with another man.

At some point he broke in, this harebrained half-scheme got even more stupid and morphed into the incredibly random theft of two rowing medals — the 1910 Henley Royal Regatta Grand Challenge Cup medal and a 1932 silver and a bronze medal. The alarm sounded but while the college porter was investigating, Andrews stole the gold ring from a display cabinet in another part of the college.

DNA analysis of blood traces found at the scene of the crime led to the arrest and incarceration of Andrews. He admitted his culpability and described the theft as an impulse, not premeditated or even a tiny bit thought through. He claimed he had no idea of the objects’ value and had sold them to a London scrap dealer for £150. He was sentenced two years in prison for the theft, to be served concurrently with the six years he had begun to serve for an earlier robbery.

Magdalen kept the news of the theft quiet in the beginning, hoping police would be able get the artifacts back. A week later, they announced the loss of the ring and offered a £3,500 reward, the equivalent of a tenth of its insured value, for any information leading to the its return. None was ever forthcoming.

More than a dozen years passed, and the ring was feared melted down. In 2015, Dutch art investigator par excellence Arthur Brand heard some scuttlebutt on the mean streets that a gold buckle-shaped Victorian ring with a “Russian” inscription had surfaced in the black market. Brand recalled the theft of the unusual Wilde ring and wondering if that “Russian” writing might actually be Greek.

The Dutchman then started to put out feelers.

Together with a London-based antiques dealer named William Veres, their enquiries eventually led them to George Crump, a man whom Brand described as a “decent man with knowledge of the London criminal underworld because of his late uncle, a well-known casino owner.”

Through Crump, Brand and Veres finally managed to track down and negotiate the safe return of the stolen ring.

It’s possible the ring only surfaced because it was stolen AGAIN, this time in the Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary, at an estimated  £200 million in jewelry stolen the largest burglary in English history. That burglary, perpetrated by a gang of septuagenarians, took place in April 2015 and after that gossip was rife in the demimonde that a bunch of previously stolen goods had been found in the vault.

The ring is now in a secure location in England. It will be officially returned to Magdalen College in a ceremony at Oxford on December 4th.

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