Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

What is this hinged imperial white jade piece?

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

An imperial white jade object from the 18th century that is as mysterious as it is beautiful will be going up for auction at Bonhams next month. Made for the Qianlong Emperor (reigned 1735-1796), sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, the piece is made out of two hollowed rectangles that are connected to a central triangle via two hinges. They hinges work, allowing the rectangles to move from laid out straight to fully vertical.

The hinge-fitting embodies much of the artistic and historical pre-occupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging yet technically flawless piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.

The ancient bronze that inspired this piece was described in the 1751 catalog of the imperial bronzes as a “Han Dynasty ornament,” which means they had little idea what it was for either.

The Qianlong Emperor was a passionate collector of art. His agents would buy up entire private collections from people who had fallen in hard times or whose descendants didn’t want to be associated with them because they had taken the wrong side during the wars of the Qing Conquest. There are thousands of jade pieces in the imperial collection and almost all of them were acquired or commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor.

Although he was an artistic polyglot who welcomed the fusion of Chinese and Western styles (the famous bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac were made during his reign), the Qianlong Emperor saw himself first and foremost as the keeper of China’s artistic heritage. His collection of ancient bronzes was unparalleled, as was his collection of antique paintings. An incredibly prolific poet in his own right, he adopted a practice of the Song dynasty emperors and inscribed his poems on paintings in the collection.

That desire to integrate the glorious past of China’s cultural heritage and its glorious present as incarnated by him may be key to identifying the purpose of the hinged jade object. There is another hinged white jade piece similar to this one which is engraved with an imperial poem.

The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This pre-occupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler who is guided well.

That’s not to say this was its original purpose. The Han bronze may have had a whole other significance to which the Qianlong Emperor ascribed his own meaning.

The piece is estimated to sell for £200,000 to £300,000 ($333,000 – $500,000), but the market for Chinese antiquities is insane right now so those numbers could go increase geometrically. The auction catalog is not available yet. They’re usually released four weeks before the auction, so if you’d like to leaf through it, check this page the last week in April.

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Piece of cake from 1924 Vanderbilt wedding found

Friday, March 28th, 2014

A 90-year-old piece of cake from the wedding of Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt to John Francis Amherst Cecil on April 29, 1924, has been rediscovered and donated to the Biltmore House collection. The small sliver of fruitcake, that most enduring of cake varietals, was found by Frederick Cochran when he was going through a trunk he inherited from his aunt Bonnie Revis, formerly a cook at Biltmore House. It was in a tiny beige box stamped “Biltmore House” on the lid.

Cochran looked inside and saw what he thought was a piece of cheese (fruitcake looks cheesy after a century, it seems). He called Biltmore House and reported his find. Biltmore Museum Services collections manager Laura Overbey went to Cochran’s home to examine the artifact and bring it back to the great estate in Asheville, North Carolina. She recognized the box from the two distinctive monograms on either side of the “Biltmore House” on the lid as those of Cornelia Vanderbilt and John F. A. Cecil, which marked the box and its contents as originating at their huge society wedding.

As far as she knew, however, there was no cheese gifting at the Vanderbilt-Cecil wedding. It wasn’t until she overheard a couple of conversations that she was able to put the pieces together.

Back at Biltmore, one of Overbey’s coworkers happened to be talking about “how a friend had found a piece of Grover Cleveland’s wedding cake” — and she realized what she likely had in the pretty little box. Even more coincidental, as she walked into the office of her director, Ellen Rickman, to tell her the news, she heard an oral history to which Rickman was listening, about Cornelia’s nuptials.

“Right as I was coming in the door, this gentleman (on the recording) is saying he remembers getting a small box of fruitcake for the wedding,” Overbey said. Thus it was that an interview done in 1989 helped a collections manager in 2014 to identify a piece of cake from 1924.

In the interview, an elderly Paul Towe, whose father worked at Biltmore in the 1920s and ’30s, recalled attending Cornelia’s wedding as a small boy. His sister, Sarah, was a flower girl, and he remembered that “everybody got a little white box with their name on it with a piece of fruitcake.”

That would explain why Bonnie Revis had a sliver of the cake, because it was widely distributed to all the staff and attendants, and she was cook from 1924 to 1935 (coincidentally almost exactly the duration of the Vanderbilt-Cecil marriage). Cornelia’s late father George Vanderbilt (grandson of railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt) and her mother Edith Stuyvesant Dresser were deeply involved in the Asheville community and employed hundreds of people at the estate. When Cornelia, only child of George and Edith, married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, third son of Lord Cecil and the Baroness Amherst of Hackney, direct descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, the entire town assembled outside All Souls’ Church to watch the couple and 1,000 guests arrive and depart.

Many workers at the Biltmore Estate were guests or actually part of the wedding. When the newlyweds left the church arm in arm after the ceremony, they and the wedding party walked through an arch of crossed flowering branches held by 44 children of Biltmore Estate staff. The youngest, Polly Ann Flower, greeted them at the end of the arch wearing a little white Cupid outfit.

There are no records surviving of what kind of wedding cake was served, but fruitcake was traditionally the groom’s cake, so it’s like this sliver was carved off John Cecil’s cake rather than whatever massive confection served as the primary wedding cake. It was made by Rauscher’s, identified by a stamp inside the bottom of the box, a bakery in Washington, D.C. George and Edith had a home on K Street in D.C., and Cornelia was staying there when she met Cecil. He was ten years older than her and an accomplished diplomat. When they met in 1923, he was the first secretary at the British Embassy and part of a group of highly eligible men known in D.C. society as the “British Bachelors.” Cornelia and John hit it off right away, announcing their engagement just a few months after they met.

John Cecil resigned his position before the wedding, choosing instead to focus on the management of the Biltmore Estate. It became his life-long vocation. He continued to live at and manage Biltmore until his death in 1954, twenty years after his divorce from Cornelia. She, on the other hand, got married to an English banker in 1949 and moved to England where she spent the rest of her life. John and Cornelia’s sons took over management of the estate after John’s death, George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil running Biltmore Farms (the successful dairy farm branch), his younger brother William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil taking on the Biltmore Estate, including the house and vinyards he planted. Their children manage the estate today.

As for the piece of cake, it is now in the freezer, for historical rather than culinary preservation purposes. It is still inside its original gift box, protected by several nested Ziploc bags.

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1940s Chicago in living color

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

A rare color film of Chicago made in the 1940s was discovered at an estate sale in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the south side of Chicago by a professional film colorist, fortuitously enough. The canister was labeled “Chicago Print 1″ which was intriguing enough to entice Jeff Altman to spend $40 to buy the film even though nobody at the sale knew what it was or what kind of condition it was in.

The film turned out to be a 32-minute tour of the city sponsored by the Chicago Board of Education with footage of everything from the glamour of the Wrigley Building to the manufacturing plants of the South Shore. Street scenes are interspersed with dramatic aerial footage shot from United Airlines planes. It was in good condition but needed some color adjustments which its new owner just happened to have the skills to make.

Chicago – A Film from the Chicago Board Of Education from Fading Dyes on Vimeo.

The city looks great — the aerial views of the lakefront are particularly breathtaking — and I’m a sucker for that fabulously stentorian narratorial tone that was so prevalent in publicity films and newsreels from the 1940s. The shots of the L moving through skyscrapers (around the 3:50 mark) look like something from Metropolis.

There are no references in the footage or narration to what the specific purpose of the film was, probably attracting tourism or maybe new businesses, which would explain the unusual coverage of the industrial areas of the city. The Board of Education has so far been unable to locate any records of the production in their archives, but the date can be extrapolated from what we see and hear. The sad fate of that wonderful narrator is a key piece of evidence.

It’s unclear exactly when the video was produced, but portions of it seem to have been filmed in 1940s, judging by the models of cars and what seems to be a marquee for the 1945 Humphrey Bogart film “Conflict.”

The video was likely released between January 1945 and September 1946, as John Howatt, credited as the board’s business manager, was elected to the post on Jan. 8, 1945, while narrator Johnnie Neblett died on Sept. 15, 1946, according to Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Lauren Huffman.

The 1945/6 is confirmed by one of the comments on Vimeo points out that you can see the USS Sable aircraft carrier anchored on Lake Michigan. It was decommissioned at the end of 1945 and broken up for scrap in July 1946.

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Altar cloth stitched by injured soldiers during WWI to go on display

Friday, March 21st, 2014

An altar frontal that was hand embroidered by 133 soldiers as they recovered from their injuries during World War I will be going back on display at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for the first time in 70 years. Commonwealth soldiers from the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa convalescing at hospitals all over Britain contributed to the altarpiece, embroidering sections of five panels which were then stitched together by experts at the Royal School of Needlework. The final product is almost 10 feet wide and features intricate floral patterns alternating with two palm branches, signifying martyrdom’s spiritual victory over the flesh. The central panel is the chalice of the Eucharist, representing Christ’s suffering for the forgiveness of sin, above a floral field.

The altar cloth was organized by the Royal School of Needlework as a form of occupational therapy for recovering soldiers. Occupational therapy, the idea that working could be physically and psychologically beneficial for trauma patients, began during World War I as treatment for shellshocked and injured soldiers. Patients learned arts and crafts like basket weaving and painting and, if they were physically able, heavier skills like woodwork and welding. For war casualties, “lap crafts,” work that could be done while seated, were particularly useful, and embroidery, cross-stitching and other needlework were lap crafts coupled the convenience of a lap craft with the development of fine motor skills and coordination invaluable to men with limb injuries and the painful ticks and tremors of shell shock. Sewing was both physical therapy and a welcome distraction from their suffering. It didn’t require the use of heavy machinery or tools, nor even a workbench. Men could stitch while sitting comfortably in bed.

Needlework also had the marked advantage of a wide pool of potential teachers, thanks to the army of women on the homefront who volunteered for the Red Cross or local organizations like the Khaki Club in Bradford which deployed embroidery master Louisa Pesel to help a group of soldiers recovering at the Abram Peel Hospital in Leeds to cross-stitch an altar frontal of their own for use at the hospital chapel.

The final stage of stitching together the panels of St. Paul’s altar cloth was completed after the war ended. The finished product was then presented to St. Paul’s Cathedral where for decades it graced the front of the cathedral’s high altar. It was removed for its own safety after St. Paul’s was hit by German bombs during the Blitz. One bomb dropped in October of 1940 was a direct hit, obliterating the altar. You can see the aftermath of another bombing in 1941 in this silent footage from British Pathé.

When the war was over and the high altar rebuilt, its dimensions were different so the World War I frontal no longer fit. It was kept in a chest for more than 70 years until the cathedral decided to fish it out and conserve it for display on the centenary of the beginning of World War I. The frontal is now being restored by the cathedral’s borderers (embroiders). When the repair work is done, the textile will be used for the first time since World War II at a special service on August 3rd, 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the day Germany declared war on France and began an invasion through neutral Belgium triggering Britain’s entry in the war. After that, it will be go on display in a dedicated space in the cathedral for four years until the centenary of armistice.

To pay tribute to the 133 soldiers who contributed to the altar frontal, St. Paul’s officials would like relatives of the men to contact them. They’re hoping photographs, letters, mementos, family stories can be included in the display to give visitors a more personal understanding of the soldiers’ lives. Researchers have compiled a complete list of their names, ranks, regiments and the hospitals they were staying at when they worked on the frontal. Here is the complete list in an Excel spreadsheet. If you have relatives who fought for Britain in World War I and were hospitalized there, do check the list. If you see a name you recognize, contact the Reverend Canon Michael Hampel at precentor@stpaulscathedral.org.uk.

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Scrap metal dealer finds lost Fabergé Imperial Egg

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

So maybe the $7 flea market Renoir didn’t turn out to be the Antiques Roadshow-style fairy tale it seemed to be at first blush, but that story pales in comparison to the tale of an anonymous scrap metal dealer from an undisclosed Midwestern state who bought a gold egg clock at a flea market antiques stall for $14,000 and found out it was one of the eight lost Imperial Eggs made for the Tsar of All the Russias by jeweler Carl Fabergé.

Portrait of the Empress Maria Feodorovna by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy, 1882From 1885 to 1917, Fabergé made at least 50 Imperial Eggs for the Romanov emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II. Alexander started the tradition when he gave his beloved wife Empress Maria Feodorovna the Hen Egg for Easter in 1885. As a girl at the court of Denmark, Maria (formerly Princess Dagmar of Denmark) had been enchanted by an 18th century ivory egg owned by her aunt Princess Vilhelmine Marie of Denmark. Still in the Royal Danish Collection today, the egg screwed open to reveal a half yolk with a gold chicken inside, a diamond and gold crown inside the chicken and a diamond ring inside the crown. It’s not known whether Alexander III got the idea from that piece or if Fabergé did, but correspondence has survived indicating the Tsar was very much involved in the design of the first Imperial Egg. The Empress was thrilled by the charming white enameled egg that opened to reveal a whole gold yolk, a surprise gold chicken inside of the yolk, and a tiny replica of the Russian imperial crown inside of the chicken. Inside the crown hung a wee ruby pendant which could be attached to a gold chain and worn.

Imperial Hen Egg, 188518th century ivory egg in the Royal Danish Collection that inspired the Hen EggIt was such a success that the gifting of an elaborate Fabergé Easter egg became an imperial tradition and its maker earned the title of official jewelry Supplier to the Imperial Court. They were recognized in their time as fabled wonders. Other aristocrats, wealthy industrialists and bankers commissioned eggs of their own from the jeweler, but the ones Fabergé made for the Tsars, uniquely intricate masterpieces crafted from the most precious materials, have become iconic symbols of the lavish Romanov court in the last years before its brutal demise.

After the 1917 October Revolution, the Romanov palaces were ransacked. Some of the Imperial Eggs were lost during the looting, but most of them were inventoried, crated and stashed in the Kremlin Armory in Moscow. Lenin considered the Romanov treasures Russia’s cultural patrimony and ordered their preservation. Stalin, on the other hand, had no such scruples. He saw them as sources of hard currency, pure and simple, and between 1930 and 1933 14 Imperial eggs were sold in the West by Stalin’s commissars. He couldn’t sell all of them, though, because the Kremlin Armory curators risked their lives to hide the most important pieces.

The Order of St. George EggOnly one egg made it out of Russia still in Romanov hands. The Order of St. George Egg, which was made in 1916 as a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to his mother the Dowager Empress, was saved because she had moved to Kiev in 1916 as the situation at court grew more precarious. After her son’s abdication in March of 1917, she moved to Crimea where she managed to remain unmolested even as her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were shot to death. She refused to believe they were dead and she refused to leave Russia. Finally in 1919 her sister, Dowager Queen Alexandra of Britain, persuaded her to leave. King George V, who deeply regretted his decision not to rescue his cousin Nicky and his family in light of their horrible fate, sent the Iron Duke-class warship HMS Marlborough to pick her up at Yalta, and Maria fled carrying the egg and other treasures with her.

Out of the 50 eggs, 42 were known to have survived in private collections and museums around the world. Eight were lost, and four of those were known only from their descriptions because there were no extant pictures. There has been some confusion in the scholarly community over the missing eggs, particularly when they were made and what they looked like. For many years experts thought the Blue Serpent Clock Egg, currently owned by Prince Albert II of Monaco, filled the 1887 spot on the timeline, but in fact it was made in 1885 and it’s one of those picture-less eggs, the Third Egg, that was gifted to Maria Feodorovna in 1887.

Third Egg (in the white square) at 1902 Von Dervis exhibitionThe Third Egg was photographed at the 1902 exhibition of Tsarina Alexandra’s and Dowager Empress Maria’s Fabergé treasures at the Von Dervis mansion in St. Petersburg, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it was identified in the Imperial Egg display vitrine thanks to the discovery of a more recent picture from 1964. It turns out that sometime after it was inventoried by Soviet curators in 1922, the Third Egg traveled west. In March of 1964 it was lot 259 in a Parke Bernet auction in New York, but it was not identified as an Imperial Egg. It wasn’t even identified as a Fabergé. From the catalog:

Gold Watch in Egg-Form Case on Wrought Three-Tone Gold Stand, Set with Jewels

Third Egg in the Parke Bernet auction catalogue, March 1964Fourteen-karat gold watch in reeded egg-shaped case with seventy-five point old-mine diamond clasp by Vacheron & Constantin; on eighteen-karat three-tone gold stand exquisitely wrought with an annulus, bordered with wave scrollings and pairs of corbel-like legs ciselé with a capping of roses, pendants of tiny leaves depending to animalistic feet with ring stretcher; the annulus bears three medallions of cabochon sapphires surmounted by tiny bowknotted ribbons set with minute diamonds, which support very finely ciselé three-tone gold swags of roses and leaves which continue downward and over the pairs of legs. Height 3 1/4 inches.

Third Imperial Easter Egg by Carl Fabergé, 1887The disinherited Imperial Egg was purchased at that auction by a Southern lady for $2450. After her death in the early 2000s, her estate was sold and the egg, still unrecognized, made its way to a midwestern antiques stall where it was spotted by a scrap metal dealer. He planned to quickly resell it to be melted down for its gold value, but all of the prospective buyers who tested it thought he had overpaid. Blessedly stubborn, he refused to sell it at a loss and so for years he just kept the egg at home.

Top view of open Third EggIn 2012, he Googled “egg” and the only name he could find on the piece “Vacheron Constantin,” the makers of the lady’s watch that was the surprise inside. The results pointed him to a fateful article in the Telegraph that had been written in 2011 when the auction photograph of the Third Egg was discovered. “Is this £20 million nest-egg on your mantelpiece?” was the incredibly fortuitous headline, and the scrap metal fellow kind of thought his answer to the question might be yes.

He contacted the expert cited in the article, Kieran McCarthy of London jewelers and Fabergé specialists Wartski, and the rest is history that reads like a fairy tale.

Mr McCarthy said: “He saw the article and recognised his egg in the picture. He flew straight over to London – the first time he had ever been to Europe – and came to see us. He hadn’t slept for days.

Third Imperial Easter Egg by Carl Fabergé, open“He brought pictures of the egg and I knew instantaneously that was it. I was flabbergasted – it was like being Indiana Jones and finding the Lost Ark.”

Mr McCarthy flew to the US to verify the discovery.

“It was a very modest home in the Mid West, next to a highway and a Dunkin’ Donuts. There was the egg, next to some cupcakes on the kitchen counter.

“I examined it and said, ‘You have an Imperial Fabergé Easter Egg.’ And he practically fainted. He literally fell to the floor in astonishment.” The dealer etched Mr McCarthy’s name and the date into the wooden bar stool on which Mr McCarthy sat to examine the egg, marking the day that his life changed forever.

Wartski immediately arranged a private sale of the egg for an undisclosed sum that is certainly in the tens of millions. Russian oligarch Victor Vekselberg spent $100 million buying nine Imperial eggs from the estate of Malcolm Forbes in 2004, and in 2007 a non-Imperial egg sold at auction for $18.5 million. There are scratches on the surface of the egg from where would-be buyers sampled the material to test its gold content, but they didn’t decrease its market value. They might have even increased it, since they’re a record of this stranger-than-fiction backstory.

The scrap metal dealer, petrified that people will find out he hit the decorative arts Powerball, has limited himself to purchasing a new car and a new house just down the road from his old house. The new owner has allowed Wartski to exhibit the Third Egg at their Mayfair store from April 14th to 17th, 112 years after it was last seen in public under its true identity.

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Junction Group Hopewell earthworks saved!

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

They had to pay through the nose with money they don’t actually have in hand quite yet, but the non-profit Arc of Appalachia, in collaboration with four other heritage and environmental organizations and donors like you and me, was able to purchase 193 acres of the Stark farm at auction on Tuesday, saving the ancient Hopewell earthworks known as the Junction Group. It’s an amazing result, especially when you consider that they only found out about the sale two weeks ago and the fundraising began eight days ago. They had to go up against some monied interests as well, housing developers who could have seriously damaged if not obliterated this sacred Native American ceremonial site.

Arc of Appalachia was ambitiously hoping to buy the entire 335-acre farm even though the earthworks just take up about 25 acres of one 89-acre plot because they wanted to combine protected cultural heritage with a nature preserve. The farm was divided into six lots. Besides the earthworks field, the coalition was able to acquire two forested tracks and a river corridor 1.2 miles long. These additional lots were key to preserving the full archaeological context of the site and to protect the delicate ecosystem of the woods and along the environmentally significant Paint Creek. The only lot they did not acquire was a large farm field of more than 170 acres. That was their lowest priority parcel and it sold to Dave Williams, a farmer who has worked for the Stark family for 22 years.

Williams was bummed that most of the land went to the conservancy groups. “I’m in it for one reason, they’re in it for another. Sad part is, when they buy property, there’s no more revenue from it, tax from it, that’s the downfall.” I wouldn’t call it a downfall since land isn’t wasted just because it’s not being used to produce cash crops. Even if you do think of its value solely in monetary terms, this is far from the end of the land’s ability to generate revenue for the state and local business alike. The opposite is true, in fact. The ultimate aim here, let’s recall, is to turn over the site to the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and the national parks are a huge source of money from fees and the many associated expenditures park visitors (hotels, restaurants, souvenirs) make. I doubt farm taxes even come close to park revenues.

With real estate developers gunning for their piece of the pie, Arc of Appalachia wound up spending more than a million dollars to save this precious historical and environmental resource, $650,000 for the 90-acre earthworks lot alone.

Here’s some number crunching for you. We bought 102 acres of forest, the earthworks, and a total of 192 acres of land for a total of roughly $1.1 million. Our average per/acre cost was $5751.

As you can see, we raised roughly $375,000 through the generosity of over 900 donors, funds which we will use to leverage a Clean Ohio grant to pay the remaining balance of acquisition funds needed. If you pledged your support or would like to contribute, please send your donation now.

Obviously they’re very confident that the grant will be forthcoming or else they wouldn’t have gone so high, but the figures look very daunting to me so there’s still plenty of room for donations. Now that the land is secured, you can contribute to the kitty without fear that it will be for naught. Click the donate button on this page to make good on your pledge or to help keep Arc of Appalachia in the optimism to which it has become accustomed. If you’d like to mail in your pledged amount (or more), please send it to Arc of Appalachia, 7660 Cave Road, Bainbridge, OH 45612.

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Turner’s burning Parliament is in fact burning Tower

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

A series of nine watercolors by Joseph Mallord William Turner in the Tate Gallery, long thought to be studies for two oil paintings called The Burning of the Houses of Parliament or The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, in fact depict a later fire at an entirely different landmark: the Tower of London. The original identification was made in 1909 by art historian and Turner biographer A.J. Finberg who helped catalogue some of the massive Turner Bequest. Not all experts were persuaded that Finberg’s identification was correct, but there didn’t seem to be a viable alternative hypothesis so the Parliament title stood.

The fire at the old Houses of Parliament took place on October 16th, 1834. Fire broke out just before 7:00 PM and quickly devoured the Houses of Lords, Commons and all the adjacent buildings. Tens of thousands assembled to watch the flames and Turner was among them with his sketchbook. Later that year or early in 1835, he completed two different versions of the subject based off the quick sketches he drew from the south bank of the Thames. Those oil paintings are now in the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The watercolors are painted in broad, nearly abstract strokes of color making the shape of the buildings hard to distinguish. It was Matthew Imms, Tuner Curator at the Tate working on a new comprehensive catalog of the Bequest, who researched new possible candidates for the conflagration. His starting point was the dating. That abstract style is indicative of Turner’s later work, so Imms dug through periodicals of the late 1830s and Turner’s papers looking for any other major city fire the artist may have witnessed. That’s when he came across prints and descriptions of the Tower of London fire of 1841 and found architectural features that matched certain elements of the watercolors.

“The building that burned was called The Grand Storehouse, in the late 17th-century English Baroque style—red brick with stone dressings—and it held the historic armoury collections of cannons, and all the guns and rifles and so on that had been used in previous campaigns. Whether there was anything flammable among those, I’m not sure,” Imms says, “but they kept tents in the roof, so that would be good kindling.”

“The cupola and long, tall windows of the ill-fated building are the dominant architectural details in the watercolours, but more familiar buildings also stand out. There’s a classical pediment in one of the watercolours, with what seems to be the White Tower in the background,” he says. “It’s one of the ones that people thought was Westminster Abbey, but the turrets are too small and far apart, so we think it’s the White Tower.”

Although no direct references to witnessing the fire have yet been found in his papers, there is correspondence that proves he asked for permission to visit the grounds right after the fire. On November 3rd, 1841, just four days after the fire broke out the night of October 30th, Turner received a letter from the Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo and commandant of the Tower, refusing him access. Nobody was to be admitted unless they had legitimate business there.

Some of the series of nine watercolors will go on display at the Tate starting on September 10th. They will be part of The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free, a show dedicated to Turner’s glowing later works. They will be redated based on the new research. No word yet on whether they’ll be renamed.

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Auschwitz museum gets rare camp tattoo stamps

Monday, March 17th, 2014

An anonymous donor has given the Auschwitz Museum five stamps used to tattoo prisoners at the death camp. Each metal block is embedded with a group of small, sharp needles arranged in the shape of a number, in this case one zero, two threes and two that could be either sixes or nines depending on which end is up. Only one other Nazi tattooing tool is known to exist — it’s in the Military Medical Museum in Saint Petersburg — which makes these grim survivals as rare as they are compelling.

“It is one of the most important findings of the recent years. We couldn’t believe that original tools for tattooing prisoners could be discovered after such a long time,” emphasised Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński, Director of the Auschwitz Museum. “Even a tattooed number is rare to be seen now as the last prisoners pass away. Those stamps will greatly enrich the new main exhibition that is currently being prepared,” he added.

To preserve the anonymity of the donor, the museum has released limited information about the artifacts. All they’re saying right now is that the stamps were found on or near one of the evacuation routes the Nazis used to move prisoners west when the Soviets were baring down on them from the east in January of 1945. About 56,000 prisoners were marched out of Auschwitz in columns through Upper and Lower Silesia. Most met up with trains and were transported the rest of the way. The routes covered an area 30 to 35 miles north and south of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, and one march was 155 miles long; a lot of ground in which to find five small metal plates.

Tattooing of prisoners began at Auschwitz in 1941 with Soviet prisoners of war. Serial numbers were first patches sewn into uniforms or attached with badges or armbands, but as more prisoners arrived and more of them died, clothing-based identification was found wanting. If their uniforms were tattered or lost, then their serial numbers were gone too. Prisoners also sometimes traded their worn clothes for pieces in better condition that had belonged to deceased inmates. Tattoos were durable and could not be exchanged.

The first tattoos were applied using a metal stamp with interchangeable numbered plates. The needled stamps were punched against the prisoner’s skin and then ink rubbed into the wound. The early Soviet prisoners were tattooed on the chest. Later the location of the tattoo moved to the left upper forearm, first the outside and then the inside. The metal plate stamps were eventually replaced with fixed needles on a wooden shaft that were dipped in ink and then pushed into the skin.

The tattoo was applied to prisoners at registration when they were assigned their serial numbers. In spring of 1942, Auschwitz authorities expanded the pool of tattooed prisoners from Soviets to other prisoners (Jews, Roma, reeducation candidates, political prisoners), retroactively tattooing people who were already registered. Eventually everyone who survived the initial sorting process was tattooed. People who were sent directly to the gas chambers were not.

Although other camps appear to have used serial number tattoos at times, Auschwitz was the only camp to have systematically tattooed its prisoners. The recently unveiled stamps, therefore, are of great significance to the history of Auschwitz. Up until now, the museum has only had a replica of the Military Medical Museum’s tattooing device on display. The plates will be kept in the museum’s archives while the main exhibition area is revamped, after which they will go on display in the redesigned space.

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Help save unique Hopewell earthworks in Ohio

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

The Junction Group earthworks complex in Chillicothe, Ohio, is one of very few remaining ancient Native American ceremonial sites that hasn’t been sliced and diced by roads or train tracks or development. Situated on the south edge of the city at the confluence of the Paint Creek and its tributary North Fork Paint Creek, the earthworks take up about 25 acres of a 90-acre plot that is going up for auction on Tuesday, March 18th. The field belongs to the Stark family who have farmed it for generations but are now reluctantly selling the entire farm, including the earthworks.

The land has road frontage and is close to city water and sewer lines, which makes it a very attractive parcel for a housing development. There’s already a subdivision kitty corner with the property. Any such construction would destroy the foundations of the earthworks of the Hopewell Culture which we know are still there just underneath the surface. The Junction Group was built 1800-2000 years ago as nine earthworks enclosures: four circular mounds, three crescents, one large square and a quatrefoil. The latter is the only known example of that shape ever discovered in Ohio.

To keep this irreplaceable historical treasure from falling into uncaring hands, the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy, the Arc of Appalachia and other non-profit organizations are working together to raise $500,000 to buy not just the earthworks parcel but the entire farm which is being sold in six lots. If they are successful in acquiring the land, the long-term plan is to turn it over to the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park which is just six miles northwest of the Junction Group. The national park already administers five Hopewell sites in the Paint Creek Valley, and although the process of transferring a sixth site to national park stewardship requires legislative action that can take years, the Arc of Appalachia has already begun the process for another Hopewell earthwork and are confident they can pull it off in the end. They have the full support of the park service in their endeavours.

The Hopewell culture, also known as the Hopewell tradition because it describes a range of different tribes who developed an extensive trade network along the rivers of the northeast and midwest, flourished from around 200 B.C. to 500 A.D. They were the inheritors of the Adena culture who inhabited the same area in the Scioto River Valley in the first millennium B.C. There are two dozen Hopewell ceremonial sites in Ross County alone, most of them consisting of at least one burial mound and several earthwork structures. There is little evidence of settlement on these sites; their purpose appears to have been almost entirely religious.

The Junction Group was first named and documented by Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis in their seminal 1848 work Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. It was the first major work on the archaeology of ancient mounds in the United States and the first publication of the Smithsonian Institution. When Squier and Davis recorded the Junction Group in 1845, the largest mound was seven feet high and some earthenwork walls were at least three feet high with deep ditches on either side.

Since then, farming has worn down the mounds and earthworks so they are no longer visible to the naked eye. It was a magnetic imaging survey in 2005 which revealed that the foundations of the complex are still crystal clear under the plough line. The survey also was the first to recognize that what Squier and Davis thought was a smaller square was actually the unique quatrefoil.

If you’d like to donate to save this irreplaceable resource, you can make a pledge on the Arc of Appalachia website here or pledge or donate on the Heartland Earthworks Conservancy page here. Pledges are very important to this project because the organizations are applying for grants that will match pledged funds and for loans that will be easier to secure with proof of financial backing.

Please spread the word! There are only a few days to go before the auction. So many of these mounds and earthworks are gone forever in Ohio. Let’s stop the Junction Group from succumbing to this tragic fate.

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Australia’s only surviving first banknote for sale

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

The only known surviving example of the first banknote issued in Australia will be going up for auction this month. The ten shilling note is conservatively estimated to sell for 250,000 Australian dollars ($225,000) and could well go for much higher considering its rarity and its excellent condition. It was found in a private collection in Scotland in 2005 and then acquired privately by another collector who is now selling it auction.

Issued by the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac Banking Corporation after merging with the Commercial Bank of Australia Limited in 1982), this banknote is number 55 of one hundred ten shilling notes issued on the bank’s first day of business, April 8th, 1817. The bank was more than seven years in the making at that point. Lieutenant-Colonel Lachlan Macquarie had arrived in New South Wales at the end of 1809 to establish a functional government and economy in a colony in chaos. The New South Wales Corps, a local regiment that was supposed to maintain order was so corrupt it was known as the Rum Corps for its illegal control of the rum trade.

With the monetary system a jumble of ad hoc local currency, unreliable promissory notes and barter goods, Macquarie sought to stabilize the economy with standardized currency. He asked for permission from London authorities to establish a bank in the colony, but his request was rejected. In 1812, he took £10,000 in Spanish dollars Britain sent him and cleverly stretched them into Australia’s first official local currency by punching holes in them and creating the famous holey dollars (the donut-like outside of the coins) and the dumps (the center plugs).

The holey dollars were in circulation from 1813 until 1822 and although they helped increase the amount of hard currency in the colony and prevent all the coin from leaving on trade ships, they were insufficient to alleviate New South Wales’ monetary woes and the unreliable promissory notes, barter and use of foreign currency continued. With London still dragging its feet, in 1816 Macquarie took matters into his own hands and forged ahead with a plan to found a colony bank. Capital was raised from 39 investors and 49 regulations adopted at a General Meeting of subscribers in February of 1817.

One of the regulations required that banknotes be issued in denominations of two shillings & sixpence, five shillings, 10 shillings, one pound and five pounds. To make the plates that would stamp these banknotes, the bank directors appointed Samuel Clayton, an Irish artist and silversmith who had been transported to New South Wales for forgery in 1816. (He wasn’t the only financial criminal to get a job producing money for the colony. William Henshall, who punched the dumps out of the holey dollars and overstamped both with their new values and mottos, had been transported for counterfeiting.)

Since there was no banknote paper in New South Wales until 1820, to make the banknotes harder to forge Clayton inscribed legends on the back of the note with a unique letterpress. Number 55 is inscribed: “When we cease to render strict and impartial Justice in the Administration of the Affairs of the Bank, as it regards the Public on the one hand, and the Proprietors on the other, be our Names and Characters branded with perpetual Infamy.”

The governor signed the charter for the new bank on March 22nd, 1817, and, after a branch location was leased from Mrs. Mary Reibey, a successful businesswoman who herself had been transported to New South Wales for horse stealing in 1790 when she was just 13 years old, the Bank of New South Wales opened its doors at 10:00 AM, April 8th. The bank was a huge success, setting the colony off on a sturdy financial footing for the first time. Macquarie considered it the signature achievement of his governorship, later describing the founding of the bank as “the saving of the colony from ruin.”

Unlike the bank, the delicate paper notes did not stand the test of time. Even the holey dollars are hard to come by these days with only 300 known to survive, and banknotes are obviously much harder used in circulation. How number 55 made it to Scotland is unknown, but it may have been brought there by Macquarie himself or at least one of his staff. He was Scottish and returned home after he resigned as governor of New South Wales in 1821.

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