Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Painting by Dutch master found in Iowa gallery closet

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Robert Warren, Executive Director of the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in Des Moines, Iowa, was looking for some Civil War flags in a flower closet. He didn’t find any. Instead, wedged between a table and the wall, he found a late 16th century panel painting by Dutch master Otto van Veen. It had suffered significant water damage after spending who knows how long in a small, uninsultated room full of jumbled stuff, and before then experienced unfortunate attempts at restoration. It was also unsigned.

The scene depicts the figures of Apollo and Venus accompanied by her son Cupid. Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, Beauty, and Fertility, is portrayed as an artist painting a landscape that includes a small image of Pegasus on the horizon. Apollo, holding a lyre, is the Roman God of Music, Poetry, and more. Cupid is the Roman God of Desire, Affection, and Erotic Love. The painting also contains four still-lifes referencing Venus’ beauty and fertility: a collection of jewelry, a basket of fruit and flowers, a sprig of roses, and a bowl of oysters. A fifth still-life of her painting supplies occupies the lower right corner.

The painting was coated with layers of discolored varnish and former restoration work that flattened the three-dimensional quality of the scene and falsified the artist’s intended palette. Areas of former loss were present along splits in the wood and throughout scattered areas especially pronounced in the left third of the painting. The surface was heavily overpainted after a succession of former restoration attempts.

Chicago conservator Barry Bauman conserved the piece, cleaning it, repairing flaking paint and faulty restorations. The artist was identified as Otto van Veen who painted it in Antwerp in the last years of the 16th century. It was brought to Des Moines by the Collins family who had owned it since at least the 1880s when they lived in New York and loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting moved to Des Moines with them and the family donated it to the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery in the 1923. It is Des Moines’ earliest Old Master painting.

Born in Leiden to a prominent Catholic family, van Veen studied in Rome and built a successful studio in Antwerp where he received numerous commissions for altar pieces and other religious themed works from churches and aristocratic patrons. He also took in students, most famously Peter Paul Rubens who studied under van Veen from 1594 to 1600, just the time when he painted Apollo and Daphne. A humanist and scholar, van Veen would go on to publish three emblem books (illustrated compendia of symbols and allegories used in art accompanied by a motto from a famous author, usually from antiquity). His most popular by far was Amorum emblemata (published in 1608), which is replete with Cupids.

So even though Apollo and Venus might seem to lean towards the profane for someone with a thriving business painting Christian iconography, in fact it fits his education, understanding and pedagogical approach to perfection. There are so many symbols of love layered in the panel it would have made a very useful addition to the Amorum emblemata.

All those layers may be the reason the masterpiece was hidden away in the storage closet. When it was donated to the gallery, the Hoyt Sherman Place was run by the upstanding ladies of the Des Moines Women’s Club. They founded the Club in 1885 with the express purpose of creating an art museum open to the public free of charge. After more than two decades of hosting temporary exhibitions at various sites, in 1907 the DMWC finally found a permanent home when the city rented them the historic Hoyt Sherman Place for the token sum of $1 a year. The Club built an addition to house its art collection and the Hoyt Sherman Place gallery opened as the first public art gallery in Des Moines.

In 1921 construction began on another addition that would expand the gallery and create an elegant auditorium for performances and exhibitions. The closet where Warren discovered the Van Veen’s masterpiece is located on the balcony of the auditorium. He speculates that all the nudity, sex and fertility symbols were a little too spicy for the Des Moines Women’s Club when it was donated in the 1920s. At that time, there wasn’t a single nude in the 54-work collection.

Apollo and Venus debuted at the gallery in a preview last month. It will be displayed as part of the permanent collection this summer.

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FBI identifies Middle Kingdom mummy head

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

More than a century after its discovery and four millennia after it was entombed, the head of a Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 B.C.) mummy has been identified by FBI forensic specialists using DNA analysis. Even with all the advances in the retrieval of archaeological DNA over the past decade, the odds of success were slim because this poor head has been through the wringer. First, it was entombed in the necropolis of Deir el-Bersha on the east bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt where the blazing heat of the Eastern Desert destroys DNA in short order.

Then it was abused in the most callous fashion by looters who broke into the tomb in antiquity. After plundering the tomb of its precious metals, the thieves tossed aside a mummified body which ended up in two pieces — the torso, sans limbs, and the head. They tried to set the limestone chamber on fire to obscure the evidence of their crime, but thankfully failed and what was left of the human remains, not to mention some exceptional wood artifacts, survived.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years later, the tomb’s denizens had another close call, this time at the hand of archaeologists. George Reisner and Handford Lyman Story discovered the burial shaft of what they would name Tomb 10A under some boulders in 1915. The shaft was 30 feet long and space very tight, so Reisner and Story dynamited their way in.

Recklessly explosive entry notwithstanding, the team found beautiful and rare painted wooden coffins, figurines and pottery that had been roughly piled up and tossed around by the ancient looters. Four coffins, canes and dozens of models depicting daily life on the estate of a high official including 58 boats, artisan workshops and a religious procession featuring a male priest leading female bearers of offerings. It was the largest assemblage of Middle Kingdom funerary artifacts ever discovered.

They also found a mummified head on top of one of those coffins and the disarticulated torso in a corner. The wood objects and the head were sent to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which had co-sponsored the dig, in 1921. They had their next brush with destruction on the trip across the Atlantic when the ship caught fire. The crew managed to control the flames and the contents of the tomb made it through with minimal water damage.

At the time, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in these types of materials, so most of them were put in storage. Only the religious procession and the finest painted of the coffins were put on display. Finally in 2009 the full assemblage was rescued from obscurity and displayed in an exhibition dedicated to the finds: The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC.

The mummified head was one of the stand-out items. Its serene visage, head wrap with painted on eyebrows and curly hair visible through the linen bandages made a striking impression, as did the fact that nobody knew for sure who the head had belonged to in life. Inscriptions had identified the tomb as that of the Great Overlord of the Hare (15th) Nome, Djehutihotep, and his wife, but it wasn’t clear whether the head was male or female. Expert opinions differed and even as recently as 2009 it was thought to be impossible to retrieve viable, uncontaminated DNA from an Egyptian mummy.

The MFA had doctors at Massachusetts General extract a molar from the head in the hope it might contain a precious clean sample protected by the tooth’s enamel. Several teams of scientists tried to recover DNA from the tooth since the 2009 extraction, but to no avail. In 2016, the FBI’s forensic specialists were enlisted.

The F.B.I. had never before worked on a specimen so old. If its scientists could extract genetic material from the 4,000-year-old mummy, they would add a powerful DNA collecting technique to their forensics arsenal and also unlock a new way of deciphering Egypt’s ancient past.

“I honestly didn’t expect it to work because at the time there was this belief that it was not possible to get DNA from ancient Egyptian remains,” said Odile Loreille a forensic scientist at the F.B.I. But in the journal Genes in March, Dr. Loreille and her colleagues reported that they had retrieved ancient DNA from the head. And after more than a century of uncertainty, the mystery of the mummy’s identity had been laid to rest. […]

In the F.B.I.’s clean lab, Dr. Loreille drilled into the tooth’s core and collected a tiny bit of powder. She then dissolved the tooth dust to make a DNA library that allowed her to amplify the amount of DNA she was working with, like a copy machine, and bring it up to detectable levels.

To determine whether what she had extracted was ancient DNA or contamination from modern people, she analyzed how damaged the sample was. It showed signs of heavy damage, confirmation that she was studying the mummy’s genetic material.

She plugged her data into computer software that analyzed the ratio of chromosomes in the sample. “When you have a female you have more reads on X. When you have a male you have X and Y,” she said.

The program spit out “male.”

And thus at long last, the Great Overlord Djehutynakht reclaimed his head.

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University of Aberdeen painting is by Canaletto

Friday, March 30th, 2018

A painting donated to the University of Aberdeen 153 years ago has been authenticated as a work by the Venetian master Canaletto. It was long believed to have been the work of his studio or school, but university art history professor John Gash and leading Canaletto expert Charles Beddington are convinced it was painted by the hand of Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697–1768) himself.

Canaletto is famed for his views of Venice, but this work is more unusual in his oeuvre. It’s a capriccio, a fantasy composite of ancient ruins that don’t exist in real life, in this case a temple on which a modern cottage has been built. Peasant women hang out the wash they’ve done in the two fountains at the base and side of the ancient temple. On the left is a pyramid highly reminiscent of Rome’s Pyramid of Cestius, the only pyramid in Italy, which makes an appearance in several of Canaletto’s works.

There are three other capricci by Canaletto that share some features with the Aberdeen painting, and a collection of etchings by the artist also includes architectural and figural elements in common with this work. While it is not signed, many of Canaletto’s paintings were left unsigned by the artist. This one has a telltale mark of the artist, however: in the center of the ruined temple is a large circle which bears the coat of arms of his family.

It was bequeathed to the university by physician Alexander Henderson who died on his estate Caskieben in Dyce, Aberdeenshire, in 1863. Henderson, an Aberdeenshire native who had attended Marischal College (which in 1860 merged with King’d College to become the University of Aberdeen) as a teenager, later went to medical school in Edinburgh where he had a successful practice. He was best known for having exposed Ann Moore, the fasting woman of Tutbury, as a fraud who had been eating just fine under the very noses of previous examining physicians. After moving to London, his medical career fell by the wayside, superseeded by his interests in art, literature and fine wines, on which he became a published expert. He traveled the continent collecting art and antiquities, amassing a notable collection of ancient Greek pottery mainly acquired from the freshly excavated ruins of Herculaneum.

In his 1857 will, he left his alma mater Marischal College his entire collection which he described in far too modest terms:

“To the Museum of the said College, my pictures, drawings, marbles, Vases, bronzes, and medals which, though not of high value, may assist in forming and diffusing among my fellow townsmen a taste for the fine arts, and may lead to farther [sic.] bequests of a similar kind.”

Two years after his death, the Aberdeen Journal printed an article listing the donated works and noting they were on display in a hall of Marischal College. The Ruins of a Temple was attributed to “B. Canaletti” which is not an accurate name. The author might have meant Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto’s nephew, student and collaborator who was known to have used his patron’s nickname, but no art historians today think there’s even a slim chance of Bellotto having painted the capriccio.

“It was often thought to be from the Canaletto school – that is, by one of Canaletto’s pupils or someone imitating his style,” explains Mr Gash. “However I and others have long suspected it was a real Canaletto and now we have been able to confirm this.

“It is clear from the technique and the style, as in the language of forms and composition, that this is a Canaletto and is in fact an autograph work of the highest quality.”

The painting had previously decorated the University’s Principal’s house but has now been revealed as one of the University’s treasures.

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Buy your own hoard of (shady) nickels

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

If you’ve dreamed of uncovering an untouched coin hoard but never found anything more than a few tin buttons no matter how many fields you’ve scanned, now you can make your dreams come true, as long as they involve paying for it. A full hoard good to go complete with the canvas bag it was stored in is coming up for sale next month at Heritage Auctions all in a single lot.

As individual pieces, the 1883 No CENTS Liberty nickels in this hoard aren’t all that rare or expensive. You can get one for a few bucks, and even uncirculated condition versions can be had for a few hundred. It’s the juicy, dirty history behind that lends them a rakish charm while at the same time keeping their value low.

Designed by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, who also designed the very similar Liberty Head half-dollar, the 1883 Liberty Head nickel had one feature that made it problematic: the only reference to its denomination was the Roman numeral V inside a laurel wreath on the reverse. But labeling a coin’s value as “five” isn’t exactly specific, especially when there are gold half eagles in circulation with busts of Lady Liberty on the obverse and laurel wreaths on the reverse worth five dollars.

Because of this wee oversight, people of less than honest intention immediately began to collect the nickels as an investment in the counterfeiting possibilities. A little gold-plating, a minor modification to the edges of the nickel so it more closely matched the fiver, a distracted retailer and next thing you know, you walk away from a nickel transaction with $4.95 in change jangling in your pocket. One Josh Tatum was reputed to have been adept at passing off gold-plated nickels as five dollar pieces. His system was foolproof: as a deaf-mute, he would simply present the coin, say nothing, take his change and get out of Dodge. Arrested and tried for fraud, because he never claimed to have paid using a five dollar coin, Tatum was never convicted. Or so the legend goes, anyway. The legend also says the expression “you are joshing me” (meaning “you’re kidding me”) springs from these events, but the idiom predates the 1883 coin by at least decades, so many grains of salt are in order here.

The Mint saw the error of its ways and within months issued an updated coin 1883 Liberty Head nickel with the word “CENTS” on the reverse, leaving a lot of speculators with collections of No CENTS nickels. That’s why they’re not worth all that much on the market today, because they were so widely hoarded by people hoping to get in the passing of fraudulent currency game. The versions with “FIVE CENTS” on the reverse are far rarer and more expensive today because nobody bothered to collect them.

Still, a group of 297 1883 No CENTS Liberty nickels stored in a single bag is not something you see every day. The bag is awesome in and of itself, printed in black text on the front: “New York / Lead Company’s / HIGHLY FINISHED / DROP SHOT / Tower & Office / 63 Centre St / New York / 3”. An attached period label even notes the exact date the coins were stashed in the bag — October 2, 1889 — so more than five years after the issue. They apparently stayed in the bag, untouched, unknown and unpublished, for more than a century until they were acquired by numismatist, US coin expert and rare coin dealer Jeff Garrett in 2009.

The nickels will be sold at the U.S. Coins Auction to be held April 25-30 during the Central States Numismatic Society annual convention. Bidding opens online on April 6th.

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Synchrotron reads erased Galen

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Our ultrabright friend, the synchrotron X-ray, continues to pierce the veil of history. This time it has turned its unblinking eye on the Syriac Galen Palimpsest, a manuscript known to contain the traces of a 6th century translation of a work by the physician Galen, father of pharmacology, that was erased and overwritten with psalms in the 11th century.

Other imaging techniques had revealed the presence of ancient text under the medieval, but it was so faint and hard to read that the concerted efforts of multiple institutions and experts over the course of a decade have not been successful in making out much of it. The later writers had used ink very similar to the original to write over the parchment once they’d erased the 6th text with calcium, and researchers feared there might not be enough trace iron left for even the synchroton to pick up clear wording.

A study at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is scanning a section of the Syriac Palimpsest using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) which takes a more nuanced approached to trace elements.

With the XRF technique, the synchrotron X-rays knock out electrons close to the nuclei of metal atoms, and these holes are filled with outer electrons resulting in characteristic X-ray fluorescence that can be picked up by a sensitive detector.

These fluorescent X-rays can penetrate through layers of text and calcium, and the hidden Galen text and the newer religious text fluoresce in slightly different ways because their inks contain different combinations of metals such as iron, zinc, mercury and copper.

“We’re also interested in the background composition of the parchment and the calcium that covers the original text” says Nicholas Edwards, a research associate at SSRL. “That additional information may allow us to distinguish between the layers of the text.”

For the Galen document, a scan takes about 10 hours for each of the 26 pages. The experiment has collected vast amounts of nuanced data from the X-ray scans, and the researchers are now applying data processing tools, including machine learning, to pull out the information they seek.

“Hidden in all this data, there’s information trying to get out,” says William Sellers, an expert in data processing and the director of the University of Manchester’s zoology department. “And there’s just too much data for humans alone to sift through.”

The early imaging results are very encouraging, with Galen’s original text clearly visible in green behind the medieval text.

Once the scans are complete, they will be added to an online collection of high-resolution photographs of the Syriac Galen Palimpsest as it has been scanned with different imaging techniques over almost a decade of wide-ranging studies. Many earlier files have already been added to the online collection of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and are available to the scholarly community and world at large. It’s a fascinating record of both an ancient document and modern advances in technology.

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17th c. wall paintings found at Lindisfarne Castle

Sunday, March 25th, 2018

Conservators working on a £3 million restoration of Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland have peeled back layers of later paint to find 17th century decorative painting in a floral motif. They were found in the kitchen and east bedroom, and while they are not well preserved (understandable given the building’s checkered past), curators believe they were originally part of a larger decorative motif spread throughout various parts of the building.

Nick Lewis, the house steward of Lindisfarne Castle, said: “If you imagine a wallpaper in anyone’s house today, they often have flowers on the wall. Well, this is what this is, it’s decorative and was intended to make them feel happier and at home.

“They used charcoal to draw it, very simple carbon, and there are areas of red pigment so they might have been painted and coloured. We know it was done professionally, so you didn’t just sit and do it yourself, and in those days there was a guild of wall painters who they would have used.

“It’s really amazing that we found it in a military building, and in a building up here, as a lot of the cultural influences that came across the Channel would soak into the south-east but take decades to get up here.”

Lindisfarne Castle was built on a crag, the highest point of Northumberland’s Holy Island, in 1550 as a military fort. Stones from the Lindisfarne Priory, which had been suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539-40 and the ruins converted into naval stores, were used to build the defensive installation. It was rudimentary at best, not more much than a stone platform on an earthenwark bulkwark armed with a few cannon until the reign of Elizabeth I. She ordered that a proper masonry fort be constructed and armed in 1565.

It continued to be garrisoned even when its strategic importance faded after the unification of the Scottish and England thrones under the James I, and it saw the only action of its long life when it was taken over by Scottish insurrectionists for a few days during the Jacobite Uprising of 1715. The crown withdrew the last of its soldiers and arms in 1893, and in the beginning of the 20th century it was reduced to an occasional coast guard lookout and a tourist attraction of mild interest.

In 1901, it was acquired by publisher Edward Hudson who hired architect Edwin Lutyens to renovate it in the Arts and Crafts style, incongruous as that may seen for a stone fort atop a Northumbrian crag. Lutyens made major changes to the structure, rebuilding some of the oldest parts of the castle with new architectural elements — massive lintels, arches, brick floors, fireplaces — and erecting a tower where none had been before. The castle as it stands today is largely an Edwardian country home of distinctive originality, although many of the Tudor and Victorian features remain, integrated into a new unique whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In 1944, Lindisfarne Castle was placed in the care of the National Trust. It was opened to visitors in the late 1960s has become a popular destination, averaging about 90,000 visitors a year. Maintenance on a multi-layered building overlooking the cold waters of the Northumberland coast is a challenge, however, and in late 2016, the National Trust undertook a major conservation project to fight back against the constant invasion of moisture that has caused significant damage to the stonework, mortar and windows.

All of the interior work is now complete and the finishing touches on the exterior will be completed by May. The site reopens to the public of April 1st (not a joke), but the collection won’t be reinstalled until five weeks later. The first exhibition, Empty Spaces, will take the opportunity to showcase the story of the conservation project itself, as well as emphasizing the bones the castle’s architecture before they’re upstaged by furnishings, accessories and more than 1,000 other historical items in the collection.

The newly-discovered wall paintings are also being stabilized and conserved so they can take their rightful place in the endlessly surprising and varied texture of Lindisfarne Castle history. The ones in the kitchen will be on display to the public when the castle reopens on April 1st.

John Wynn-Griffiths, a conservator for the National Trust, said: “This is such an exciting and rare find. We are always extremely careful when peeling back layers of history but we did not expect to find these paintings at all.

“The existence of interior decoration prior to Lutyens’ renovation of the castle adds a new dimension to its historic function. Based on our knowledge of the physical history of Lindisfarne Castle, it suggests that there might have been more to life at the castle than just a military base.

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1000 years of St. Albans Abbey’s history revealed

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

Our friends at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) aren’t just busy inventorying their recovered artifacts. They’ve got excavations to do and archaeological treasures to unearth. One of their recent projects is a dig at the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans which just came to a close last month. The excavation began in August 2017 in advance of the construction of a new Welcome Center for the church and focused on a burial ground known as Monks’ Cemetery which was in use from the 18th through the mid-19th century. They recovered 120 inhumed bodies from that cemetery, out of the more the 170 recorded burials before the cemetery’s closure in 1852.

But that’s far from all they unearthed. Not surprisingly, the burial ground lived several previous lives. Under the more recent graves, the archaeological team discovered the remains of a rectangular 15th century building. Two stories high, the building was an addition to the cathedral and is believed to have contained the treasury, sacristy, vestry and two chapels, all accessible from the main building’s transept and presbytery. It was likely razed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

It’s possible, albeit not confirmed, that the abbot’s quarters were also in the 15th century structure. It is confirmed that one abbot in particular was buried under the larger of the two chapels. The excavation unearthed a brick-lined grave containing the body of an adult man. Interred with him with three Papal bullae, lead seals that were attached to official papal decrees known as bulls. While only the obverse of the seals is even partially legible, experts were able to make out the name “Martinus,” which dates the bullae to the papacy of Martin V who occupied the Throne of Peter from 1417 to 1431.

It’s extremely rare to find a grave that contains more than one of these seals. According to Professor Martin Biddle who is working with the CAT team, the discovery of three is in fact “a unique discovery in archaeology.” This strongly indicates the deceased was someone of great importance in the Church. The dates and further archival research point to this having been John of Wheathampstead. John was the Abbot of St. Albans from 1420-1440, and again from 1451 until his death in 1465. He personally undertook the arduous journey to Rome in 1423 and was granted an audience with Pope Martin V. The abbot asked the pontiff for three privileges and Martin granted all three of them. The deal was sealed with, well, seals, two of them dated November 19th, 1423, and the third November 24th, 1423. Abbot John returned with them to the St. Albans where he was celebrated for his successful mission.

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John, said, “It is a wonderful thing to have found the grave and relics of John of Wheathampstead, one of the most interesting and successful of the Abbots of St Albans. The papal seals that were found in his grave are a reminder of some of the privileges that he won for his monastery, and of his own national and international influence on the Church at a time when (not unlike today) it was faced with threats of division and decline”.

He continued, “Abbot John added a great deal to the renown and the beauty of the Abbey, and attracted many new pilgrims from Britain and overseas. He also defended the Abbey from destruction during the Wars of the Roses and was proud to say that he had preserved its treasures for future generations. It seems appropriate that he should appear just as we are trying to do the same through the ‘Alban, Britain’s First Saint‘ project, which aims to make the Abbey much better known, and to provide better resources to welcome and inform new visitors. As John would certainly wish, in due course his body will be laid to rest again, with proper prayer and ceremony. We trust he prays for us, as we do for him.”

But it’s not abbots all the way down. Beneath the foundations of the 15th century building the CAT team found the foundations of Norman chapels that were in the apse of the original St. Albans Cathedral built just over a decade after the Norman conquest of England. Paul of Caen, a very well-connected Benedictine monk, became abbot in 1077 and immediately initiated an ambitious building project, replacing the 8th century Anglo-Saxon church with a new one in Norman style. He used materials pilfered by previous abbots from the ruins of the Roman town of Verulamium, just across the river Ver from the abbey, to create a large cruciform structure that was at that time the largest abbey in England. Some of his arches still stand in the nave, as does the tower built at the intersection of the four arms of the crucifix shape (known as a crossing tower). It is the only 11th century crossing tower still extant in England.

Paul of Caen’s particular attention to building massive foundations is a large part of the reason the tower and arches are still standing to this day, so it’s fitting that even though later construction tore up the walls of the Norman apsidal chapels, the foundations were down there just waiting for archaeologists to find them.

St Albans Abbey has been confirmed as one of England’s early Norman cathedrals after experts uncovered foundations of the early church. […]

The abbey is known as the oldest place of continuous Christian worship in the country and this find pre-dates that.

The site director said: “We knew it was probably there but this confirms it.” […]

“[Our find shows] that it was and is an important site of premier status,” site director Ross Lane said.

“One of our major aims was to confirm its presence and confirm the abbey was one of the early Norman cathedrals.”

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Arrest made in Canterbury break-in!

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

The good news keeps coming regarding the break-in at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. Kent police have made an arrest and recovered more of the missing loot. On Monday, March 19th, the police received a report of a man “acting suspiciously” in front of a building on Sturry Road.

Officers attended and located a 36-year-old man of no fixed address who was arrested on suspicion of burglary.

A number of historical artefacts were recovered by attending officers, which are believed to been reported stolen in January from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust in Kingsmead Road.

So that confirms the ignorant clown theory. I seriously doubt this one drifter was able to cut through the walls of the Kingsmead stores and make off with thousands of artifacts on his own, however. That strikes me as a little above the acting-suspiciously-on-the-street pay grade. I’m thinking patsy.

The suspect is being held in custody as the investigation continues.

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Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan: a Qing materpiece rediscovered

Monday, March 19th, 2018

A masterpiece of Qing dynasty painting and poetry has been rediscovered after having spent decades in the penumbra of the antiquities market. It is a handscroll called the Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan painted by Qian Weicheng (1720-1772), a most favored official, poet and court painter of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795).

The scroll is 15 feet wide and 13 inches high and is divided into ten sections, each depicting a different landscape of Mount Tiantai (also known as Tiantai Shan). Each scene is drawn from a distance, which gave Qian Weicheng the opportunity to depict the great diversity of of the mountain views — highest peaks, lowest ravines, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, trees, caverns — and of the religious and historic sites that inhabit the ecosystem. Famed for his great talents as a writer and an artist, Qian Weicheng made use of both of gifts in this handscroll making it one of his greatest masterpieces crafted at the height of his career as court painter.

The Qianlong Emperor was the longest the longest lived emperor with the longest reign in Chinese history. He was a dedicated lover of the arts, particularly painting and calligraphy, and a collector of such fervor that he amassed more artworks than any emperor before him. His court officials, all highly literate in the first place to have passed the civil examinations that were a requirement to be recruited for imperial service, were most favored if they had artistic and literary gifts. An explosion of creative arts ensued, and the Qing court is widely considered a Golden Age for Chinese art and literature.

Qian Weicheng was a golden boy of this golden age. The scion of a prominent literary family, he was writing poetry by the time he was a young child and received his first public accolades for a poem published when he was 17. He placed first in his exams in 1745 and was brought into imperial service, climbing the ladder quickly due to his meticulous attention to duty in every position from Vice Minister of Works to Vice Minister of Justice to Education Minister of Zhejiang, to the presiding judge over an extremely complex embezzling trial. His deliberate, logical, impartial approach emphasizing adherence to clear moral standards impressed the Emperor. His ability to paint and write poetry brought him even more imperial favor, and the Qianlong Emperor often chose Quian to accompany him on official tours of the empire.

Afflicted with diabetes which made him frail and skeletal, Quian died when he was just 52 years old after a long and strenuous trip home after the death of his father. The Emperor felt the loss of his favorite ministerial and artistic luminary keenly, and granted him the posthumous name of Wenmin (literal meaning “cultivated”), a prestigious title reserved for officials of great note. Two years later, the Qianlong Emperor was still mourning Qian Weicheng, a fact attested to by the Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan.

Each of the ten landscapes is accompanied by a description of the site written by Qian Weicheng. He describes the view, pointing out the natural marvels as well as the legends and history associated with each location. In the tenth section, his description, which like the other nine manages to be geographically and topographically accurate and intensely poetic at the same time, concludes with his signature.

Wannian Temple and Blissful Water. Built during the Taihe reign of the Tang dynasty, the Wannian Temple is located in Mount Bafeng to the northwest of the county. Ten li-miles to its southeast is the Luohan Peak overlooking the Tiechuan Lake, or literally “lake of the iron boat”, after the legend of a luohan passing through here in an iron boat. Off the front gate of the temple is a confluence of two streams meandering westwards. The streams are lined with gigantic cedars that provide shade even in high summer. On the side is a small hill called Liao, with its valley strewn with grotesque rocks resembling dangling gibbons, stretching birds or any imaginable shapes. This indisputably blissful land is where the Jin monk Tanyou rested to take in the view. Painted and inscribed by your humble servant Qian Weicheng.

Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan has another remarkable feature: each of the ten sections includes a poem written by the Qianlong Emperor himself in his own hand. He played off Qian Weicheng’s descriptions as both a tribute to the many beauties of Mount Tiantai and to his favorite artist. This is the poem he wrote for the 10th landscape, an adroit and touching parallel to Qian Weicheng’s final note and signature.

Blessed with verdure and blissful with water,
Wannian is for cultivation and purification.
Like the rocky lake that never runs dry
To keep alive the iron boat story,
The painter and inscriber of this all
Will be remembered till eternity.
Inscribed by the Emperor late in the third lunar month of the jiawu year.

Jiawu year corresponds to 1774, two years after Qian Weicheng’s death. The painting is not dated, but researchers found a mournful annotation from the Emperor in the imperial archives that was not written on the scroll that states: “Qian Weicheng visited Mount Tiantai when he was
inspecting education in Zhejiang and painted this for presentation. Now that he has been gone for two years, all that is left is this scroll.” That suggests the painting was was done between 1763 and 1765 during or just after Qian’s term as Education Commissioner of Zhejiang.

The date is likely correct, but the Emperor was mistaken. Qian never actually did get around to visiting Mount Tiantai in person. We know from his own poems that he had scheduled a visit in 1762, but that was cancelled due to torrential rains. Another poem refers to a planned visit in 1764 that was also thwarted by weather. So instead he painted the Ten Landscapes based on distant views of Mount Tiantai glimpsed during his two visits to neighboring Mount Yandang and from his own imagination. His deep knowledge of the history and legends of the sites combined with his literary ability and his skill as a painter to capture the essence of the landscapes so effectively that even the Emperor, who had toured the area an unprecedented six times, never realized it wasn’t painted from life.

Qian Weicheng’s early death did have one positive side-effect. It ensured that his most of works were not scattered and remained in the imperial collection. There are 243 of his paintings and calligraphies in the Palace Museum today, and only 43 (mostly paintings) found in other collections in China. Very few pieces have turned up on the art market in auctions, and the ones that were, were smuggled out of the imperial collection by the last emperor Pu Yi.

In 1923, Pu Yi and his brother Pu Jie brought to fruition a conspiracy they had been hatching for several years. Between May and September, Pu Jie, who lived outside the Forbidden City, secretly removed the most prized books from the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, and the most important paintings and calligraphies from
the Tang (618–907), Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing (1636–1912) dynasties. They temporarily stashed the purloined cultural patrimony of imperial China in Pu Yi’s father house Beijing, then packed it all up in 80 crates, scored a pass exempting the boxes from being tolled or examined and transported them to the Tianjin British Concession where Pu Yi had an estate.

On November 5th, 1924, warlord Feng Yuxiang expelled Pu Yi from the Forbidden Palace. He fled to Tianjin, although not to his property in the British quarter, but rather to the Japanese Concession. A few months later, the Qing Dynasty Aftermath Committee discovered a list of all the books and artworks Pu Yi had “gifted” to Pu Jie, the Ten Landscapes among them. It’s not clear if some of the works were reclaimed by the warlords that ruled Beijing for the next few years, or by the Kuomintang when they defeated the warlords in 1928, or not at all. We just know that numerous pieces on the list were, at some point, sold.

After the Communist Party’s victory in the Civil War in 1949, the scroll was reclaimed by the government office that preceded the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, one of thousands of paintings and other objets d’art confiscated from dealers and people deemed enemies of the state like Jin Bosheng (who had been an official in the Japanese puppet regime of Wang Jingwei during World War II) and Yang Pu-Jie (a onetime favorite of Mao’s who had joined the Nationalists in the 1930s). Experts were enlisted to authenticate the large trove of artworks, and while some important pieces by Qian Weicheng were authenticated and squirreled away in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, for some unknown reason Ten Auspicious Landscapes of Taishan was not. It disappeared into the private market and was apparently sold repeatedly.

Now it has reemerged into the light of a Sotheby’s auction with an eye-watering but entirely reasonable pre-sale estimate of $6,400,000-8,960,000. The auction will be held on April 3, 2018, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong office. Here’s hoping it doesn’t disappear into another private collection not to be seen again for another 100 years.

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Objects stolen from Canterbury Archaeological Trust recovered

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

Great news to report on this day of lucky shamrocks: most of the estimated 2,000 artifacts stolen during a destructive break-in at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust’s Kingsmead stores have been recovered. Kent Police received a tip that the loot had been dumped in a derelict house on Military Road. Officers from the Canterbury Community Policing Team and Canterbury Archaeological Trust staff went to the property and discovered boxes full of the stolen artifacts, including coins, axes, coins, metalwork, jewelry, carved bone artifacts and the full complement of more than 850 Anglo-Saxon glass beads.

Almost all of the archaeological material stolen in the raid is now back where it belongs. In other good news, because like so many thieves who steal cultural heritage these guys were a bunch of ignorant clowns who had no idea what to do with the material once it was in their grimy clutches, they didn’t even remove the objects from their labelled bags. That will make it a comparatively easy task for the museum staff to inventory and re-archive them.

Not found in the stash were the stolen educational materials, replica Bronze Axe axe-heads, replica Beaker pots and coins, that are actually expensive to produce although not worth much in terms of market value. See above re ignorant clowns.

Trust director Paul Bennett said: “We are hugely relieved to have got back such vital material which is of huge importance to the history of the city.

“We were overwhelmed by the support we got from around the world after we were raided. To get back such a significant proportion is fantastic and we would like to thank the police for their quick response.”

The raid on the store left property scattered about and a huge job for staff and volunteers to catalogue what was missing.

“The thieves probably didn’t know what to do with it because many of the items don’t have great monetary value. Some of the missing items may probably end up being sold at fairs.

“But we still hold out hope of getting some more of it back.”

The police investigation continues in the hope of recovering all of the stolen objects and, of course, the culprits. They have yet to be identified and the authorities are keeping mum on whether they have any leads to specific individuals.

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust is moving from Kingsmead, now afflicted with exposed asbestos and stripped copper wires thanks to the savage break-in, to a new facility in Wincheap later this year. The trust hopes to create a resource center there that will make their collection both more secure and more widely available to researchers and the public.

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