Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Public conservation of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy begins

Monday, October 8th, 2018

The carefully planned conservation of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy has begun at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. On Sept. 22, 2018, a temporary conservation studio opened under the spot in the grand portrait gallery where the iconic painting usually hangs.

The Blue Boy requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. “Earlier conservation treatments mainly have involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep it on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator working on the painting and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” According to O’Connell, there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to paint loss and permanent damage; and the adhesion between the painting and its lining is separating, meaning it does not have adequate support for long-term display.

During three months of preliminary analysis—which was carried out by conservators in 2017, with results reviewed by curators—the painting was examined and documented using a range of imaging techniques that allow O’Connell and Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition, to see beyond the surface with wavelengths the human eye can’t see. Infrared reflectography rendered some paints transparent, making it possible to see preparatory lines or changes the artist made. Ultraviolet illumination made it possible to examine and document the previous layers of varnish and old overpaints. New images of the back of the painting were taken to document what appears to be an original stretcher (the wooden support to which the canvas is fastened) as well as old labels and inscriptions that tell more of the painting’s story. And, minute samples from the 2017 technical study and from previous analysis by experts were studied at high magnification (200-400x) with techniques including scanning electron microscopy with which conservators could scrutinize specific layers and pigments within the paint. Armed with information gathered from the 2017 analysis, the co-curators mapped out a course of action for treating the painting and developed a series of questions for which they are eager to find answers. Funding for the restoration and conservation work was made possible through a grant from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Program.

Visitors to The Huntington will see Blue Boy in various stages of treatment. The painting will be laid out on the table when conservators stabilize areas of flaking paint. They will use a surgical microscope to view the paint in high magnification. The microscope will be connected to a display screen so visitors can see the surface of the painting in microscopic detail along with the conservators. It was also be placed on an easel when the many layers of discolored varnishes, which alter not just the original colors but also the spatial relationships of the composition, are removed.

During the imaging research done in preparation for this year-long treatment project, Blue Boy X-rays and infrared reflectography. They revealed the head of a gentleman (at the Boy’s right elbow) and a fluffy white dog (at the boy’s right side) Gainsborough painted over and an 11-inch-long L-shaped tear in the canvas (at the boy’s left shin). The figures had been seen in earlier radiographs. (The portrait wasn’t a commission so Gainsborough simply took a used canvas he had lying around, cut it down, restretched it and painted the young man who would make his reputation.) The tear, however, was a new discovery.

Conservators hope that once they get under the layers of overpaint and varnish to Gainsborough’s original brushstrokes, they’ll find out more about his approach, about when the portrait was painted, when the tear appeared in the canvas, and maybe, just maybe, establish definitely the identity of the sitter.


The woman in the iron coffin

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

In 2011, construction work on Corona Avenue in Queens accidentally (and roughly) unearthed the remains of a woman. The backhoe had wrenched open the coffin, dragged the body out and covered it with piles of soil, but still the remains were so well-preserved that at first it was investigated as a potential crime victim. Scott Warnasch, forensic archaeologist with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, identified it as a historical burial from fragments of iron he recovered at the site, pieces of the damaged coffin of a type that was made in the mid-18th century.

A visual examination of the mummified remains determined that they belonged to an adult African-American woman. She was clad in a loose-fitting garment recognizable as a 19th century nightdress, knee-high socks and a knit cap. Her skin was largely intact and in so free of decomposition that smallpox lesions could clearly be seen on her head, chest, legs, even feet. Experts from the CDC were called in to ensure there were no infectious pathogens still active in the remains.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed X-ray tomography (CT) scans allowed the scientists to examine the body noninvasively and create a biological profile of the woman: They determined she was 5 feet, 2 inches tall (1.6 meters), African-American and about 25 to 30 years old, Warnasch explained.

The site where she was discovered was formerly an African-American church and cemetery; the church was founded in 1828 by the region’s first generation of free black people, but there are newspaper accounts of an African-American cemetery on that land dating to a decade earlier, according to Warnasch.

An expensive iron coffin was an unexpected final resting vessel for a young African-American woman from Newtown (modern-day Elmhurst), Queens, which was then a small farming town. First patented by Almond Dunbar Fisk in 1848, the cast iron coffins quickly became very desirable items for the wealthy. Fisk had been inspired to invent them when his brother William died in Mississippi in 1840 and could not be transported to New York for burial in the family plot because the journey was so long. His father Solomon was devastated by this, and in response to Solomon’s heavy grief, Fisk conceived the idea for an air-tight coffin that would preserve a body for transport even over great distances. The market for such a product was wider than that. Anybody who could afford to keep a loved one out of the hands of the dreaded resurrection men would buy a Fisk coffin too. When former First Lady (the first First Lady as we think of the role today) Dolley Madison was buried in a Fisk coffin in 1849, they became immensely popular among the political and societal elite.

In 1850, a pine coffin cost $2 in 1850. A Fisk metal coffin cost $100. This was an unaffordable price for people of modest means such as the African-American community of Newtown, all of them either the children of slaves or freed slaves. (Slavery was only fully outlawed in 1828 in the state of New York.) The woman had been lovingly prepared for burial, cleaned, dressed in a lace nightdress, a handsome comb and bonnet placed in her hair, but none of her funerary accessories indicated the kind of wealth needed to make an iron coffin even remotely possible.

Warnasch used the date the coffin was manufactured (1848-1854) and the first federal census to include free people of color by name (1850) to seek out the woman in the iron coffin’s identity. He was able to narrow it down to one very strong possibility: Martha Peterson, daughter of John and Jane Peterson, who died at the age of 26.

John Peterson was the president of the United African Society, the organization which purchased the land for the cemetery. He was a prominent member of the community and had a direct link to the founding of the burial ground. That would help explain the high level of care given the body despite her death from a highly infectious air-borne disease as well as the expensive coffin.

The smallpox alone would have been sufficient reason to pay the price for a Fisk coffin because infected cadavers could still transmit the deadly disease. Burying her in an air-tight coffin would protect the close-knit community from a potential epidemic.

Forensic specialists initially thought that Peterson might have been buried in the iron coffin because her loved ones feared the spread of disease. However, further analysis led the investigators toward a different explanation, Warnasch said, adding, “but I don’t want to give too much away.”

He doesn’t want to spoil the episode of the PBS show Secrets of the Dead which covers the discovery of the body and subsequent research. I have no such scruples because revealing 150-year-old spoilers is pretty much the entire point of this blog. I’ve watched the program and I’m sure it will be just as fascinating to watch even if you know ahead of time what they’ve discovered, but in case some of you are highly sensitive to revelation of denouements in history documentaries, I’ll put the key discovery on page two.

Or you could just go right to the documentary. In addition to the interesting find Warnasch refers to, there is an amazing section about the results of the MRI and how the smallpox lesions were founds inside her brain. The full episode is available for viewing on the PBS website. Watch it now before they take it down.


Opiate traces found in Bronze Age vessel

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

Researchers have found traces of ancient opium in a Bronze Age vessel, the first chemical confirmation that a type of pottery jug long suspected to have been used to hold opiates were indeed used for that purpose.

The vessel in question is a base-ring juglet now in the collection of the British Museum. It was made in Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age period classified as Late Cypriot II (1450-1200 B.C.). This was a period of great prosperity in the Mediterranean, with flourishing trade and prosperity leading to a rise in urban development and the introduction of literacy in the form of a variant of Minoan Linear A.

The juglet has an ovoid body on a ring base with a long, narrow neck. It is made of high-quality clay fired black and then painted with white bands on the body and neck. The shape looks like an opium poppy head turned upside down, and scholars have hypothesized that this is not a coincidence or a mere artistic inspiration, but a deliberate choice to match the design of the container to the substance it was designed to contain.

Past attempts to analyze the residue in base-ring juglets for chemical proof of the presence of the opium poppy were unsuccessful. This particular example gave researchers the unique opportunity to pursue that hypothesis because it is intact with its original seal in place. British Museum scientists found that the residue inside the juglet was primarily composed of plant oil that suggested the presence of opium alkaloids. That suggestion was insufficient to confirm that the vessel had contained opium poppy derivatives. University of York chemists devised a new analytical approach to confirm the presence of those tell-tale alkaloids in the plant oil.

Using instruments in the Centre of Excellence in Mass Spectrometry at the University of York, Dr Rachel Smith developed the new analytical method as part of her PhD at the University’s Department of Chemistry.

Dr Smith said: “The particular opiate alkaloids we detected are ones we have shown to be the most resistant to degradation, which makes them better targets in ancient residues than more well-known opiates such as morphine.

“We found the alkaloids in degraded plant oil, so the question as to how opium would have been used in this juglet still remains. Could it have been one ingredient amongst others in an oil-based mixture, or could the juglet have been re-used for oil after the opium or something else entirely?”

The opiate residue does not mean opiates were traded as lotus eater-style mind-altering substances. If the opium poppy was indeed an ingredient in an oil preparation, it could have been a perfume or used for ritual anointing. Opium has been prized since antiquity for its medicinal properties, so it might have been a pharmacological preparation.

Professor Jane Thomas-Oates, Chair of Analytical Science in the Department of Chemistry, and supervisor of the study at the University of York, said: “The juglet is significant in revealing important details about trade and the culture of the period, so it was important to us to try and progress the debate about what it might have been used for.

“We were able to establish a rigorous method for detecting opiates in this kind of residue, but the next analytical challenge is to see if we can succeed with less well-preserved residues.”


Rape confession found in 17th c. sailor’s journal

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

The restoration of a 17th century sailor’s journal in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has revealed a baldly-stated confession of rape that was obscured for centuries in a literal cover-up. The journal was written by one Edward Barlow documenting his four-decade career from 1659 and 1703. He started as an 18-year-old apprentice aboard The Naseby, the flagship of Edward Montagu which brought King Charles II back to England at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Over the forty-plus years of his career, he sailed on navy and merchant ships, participated in several naval battles and was taken prisoner. He detailed all these experiences in his journal. A gifted artist, Barlow illustrated his diary with images of the ships he served on, battles he fought and maps of his journeys.

Very little is known about Edward Barlow beyond the contents of his journal. Not even the National Maritime Museum has been able to trace the full history of the document. The museum received it from Basil Lubbock, a naval historian, sailor and failed prospector in not one but two gold rushes (Klondike, 1896, California, 1898). He had bought it from Charles Alexander Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke, descendant of Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke, Vice-Admiral of the White. There were no records of how the journal had wound up in the Yorke library. Lubbock thought it likely that some descendant of Edward’s sold the manuscript to Sir Joseph as there were people named Barlow in Hampshire at that time.

Botched repairs over the years had left the journal in dire need of conservation. Its condition issues have been a long-standing concern — senior paper conservator Paul Cook was told when he was hired at the museum in 1985 that the diary was “a problem” — and the painstaking process of restoration has been ongoing for nine years. It was Cook who saw that a page had been very carefully pasted over the original. The cover-up was so expertly performed that nobody had noticed for more than 300 years.

He originally wrote an excruciatingly frank account of his rape of Mary Symons, a young female servant in a house where he was lodging, an encounter he admitted was “much against her will, for indeed she was asleep but being gotten into the bed I could not easily be persuaded out again, and I confess that I did more than what was lawful or civil, but not in that manner that I could ever judge or, in the least, think that she should prove with child, for I take God to witness I did not enter her body, all though I did attempt something in that nature”.

Barlow inserted a line of warning: “I found by her that women’s wombs are of an attractive quality and dangerous for a young man to meddle with.”

He continued that though he wrote “a loving letter”, he wanted to “forget her and blot her out of my remembrance … as I had done with some before”. However, when his ship returned to England from Jamaica, he agreed to meet Symons and found her “weeping most pitifully and saying she was undone”.

Against the advice of friends urging him that he had a good chance of finding a rich wife, Barlow married her in Deal, “a very decent marriage where we had several people of good repute”. The union celebrated with a two-day party that cost him £10.

Their child was stillborn while Barlow was at sea, but they went on to have several more children and, despite initial doubts, he heaped praise on his wife: “Had I searched England over for a mate I could not have met with one more obliging and ready to do any thing that should give me content.”[…]

Cook became the first person in more than 300 years to read Barlow’s original words, hidden under the rewritten version, which included the weeping woman on the shore but omitted the account of the rape. Instead, Barlow wrote: “I had in part promised her at London that I would marry her … having had a little more than ordinary familiarity with her”.

Scholars think that he probably returned from a sea voyage and thought better of his honesty about the brutal origin of what appeared to have developed into a relatively happy marriage.


Stephenson’s Rocket in 3D

Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Stephenson’s Rocket, an iconic steam locomotive from the early days of train travel has been laser-scanned in all its 13-feet-long, three-ton glory. It is the largest object in the collection of the Science Museum Group ever to be 3D scanned.

Built in 1829 by Robert Stephenson and Company, Rocket won its manufacturers a lucrative contract with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway when it slaughtered the competition at the Rainhill Trials on Thursday, October 8th, 1829. It did 70 miles back and forward over a 1.5 mile track with an average running speed of 12 miles per hour and reaching a peak speed of 30 miles per hour. The competition favorite, Novelty, barely moved at all due to multiple joint failures. Sans Pareil was above the weight limit and guzzled fuel at triple Rocket’s rate and ground to a halt when its boiler ran dry.

Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson, aka the “Father of the Railways,” worked with his father and other partners to design innovative trains and railways. Rocket incorporated several technological innovations — a single pair of driving wheels, multiple boiler fire-tubes, pistons angled close to horizontal rather than vertical, etc. — which made it faster, more stable and more fuel-efficient than its competitors. These features would be replicated (and improved upon) in future steam locomotives.

Thanks to the 3D model, Rocket can now be studied in detail from anywhere in the world. Audiences can move this three-tonne locomotive around with ease on screen, peer underneath and explore the innovations which made Rocket the fastest locomotive of its time. […]

Working with Science Museum Group colleagues, a team from ScanLAB spent 11 hours recording every angle of Rocket to create the 3D model using over 200kg of camera, lighting and scanning equipment. Scanning and photography was particularly challenging due to Rocket’s colour, glossy texture and complex shape.

The 3D model was created from 22 high resolution LIDAR scans and 220 gigabytes of photographs (more than 2,500 individual pictures). The ScanLAB team processed the data for six weeks to generate a point cloud of spatial coordinates, color and intensity values for 750 million points. The 3D model is just the beginning. The point cloud information and scans will be set to other uses as well, including an augmented reality environment.


1903 Oldsmobile runabout still running about

Friday, September 28th, 2018

A 1903 Oldsmobile runabout, still running after 115 years, is going under the hammer at the H&H Classics Auction on October 17th. The pre-sale estimate is £34,000 to £37,000 ($44,361 – $48,275), double the car’s original sticker price adjusted for inflation.

Made by the Olds Motor Works, in Lansing, Michigan, it was exported to Australia soon after it was first purchased. The runabout went walkabout for six decades before making its way to England. Since the 1960s, it has been a regular in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, a fitting participant for a run that was founded in 1896 to celebrate the passage of the Locomotives on the Highway Act which raised the speed limit for “light locomotives” from four miles per hour to 14 and abolished the requirement that all cars be preceded by a pedestrian waving a red flag.

Previous Locomotive Acts, The 1896 act untied those chains and basically made driving cars on the roads possible. The draconian regulations that discouraged motoring were replaced with a more reasonable regulatory framework to ensure safety of pedestrians and other vehicles — the 14 mph speed limit, front lights to make the car visible at night, a bell to make its presence heard night or day, restricted access to bridges as determined necessary by local authorities, etc.

Mr. Hugh Luttrell of Tavistock proposed the new speed limit on the grounds that:

Unless there were some limit these carriages might travel at a speed dangerous to the public. For they would only come under the provisions against furious driving – and this law – was extremely difficult to carry out. Policemen were now largely influenced in their idea of furious driving by the amount of exertion a horse was making. It would be quite possible to drive a rapid horse at ten or twelve miles an hour without being had up for furious driving, while to whip a slow horse into ten miles an hour would very likely appear as furious driving. These carriages would go as smoothly at one rate as at another, and it would therefore be extremely difficult to say what was furious driving. For these reasons he contended for a limit of speed, and he thought 14 miles an hour a reasonable maximum.

Makes sense to me. You can tell easily if someone is attempting to whip a horse into a frenzy. Accelerating a car even to the danger point is much harder thing to detect. All of the notes from the parliamentary debate over the Locomotives on the Highway Act are a fascinating glimpse into the transition from animal-powered road transportation and steam-powered rail transportation to motorized road vehicles.

Automobiles were still in their infancy as modes of conveyance seven years later, a fancy for the rich rather than a practical means of transport (an issue raised in the parliamentary debate over the matter of how much tax to charge per vehicle). The average yearly income in the United States was $489 in 1903. The Oldsmobile runabout cost $650. So even though it was the bestselling car in the US between 1902 and 1905 with 4,000 sold in 1903, its 4.5 horsepower couldn’t come close to comparing to the popularity of the literal kind. In 1903, 900,000 horse-drawn vehicles were sold.


400-year-old shipwreck found off Portugal

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered a 400-year-old shipwreck off the coast of the port town of Cascais 15 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal, whose cargo attests to the thriving trade between Portugal and India in the 16th and 17th centuries. The find was made as part of a decade-long project funded by the town of Cascais, the Portuguese government and navy, and Nova University in Lisbon to explore the mouth of the Tagus river, an epicenter for wrecks from the heyday of Portugal’s spice trade with Asia.

The ship sank between 1575 and 1625 on the voyage back from India. It was found on September 4th 40 feet below the surface; the depth helped preserve the ship and its contents unusually well for the warm Portuguese coastal waters. Divers discovered nine bronze cannons bearing the Portuguese coat of arms, Chinese ceramics from the Wanli period (1573-1619), peppercorns and cowrie shells which were used as currency in the slave trade.

The mayor of Cascais, Carlos Carreiras, described the discovery as one of the most significant archaeological finds of the past decade. He said that although the cargo ship had yet to be identified, it could prove significant to the town.

“It’s an extraordinary discovery that allows us to know more about our history, reinforcing our collective identity and shared values,” said Carreiras. “That, in turn, will certainly make us more attractive and competitive.”

The discovery comes 24 years after experts found the wreck of the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires (Our Lady of the Martyrs), which also sailed the spice route and sank off Lisbon in 1606.

According to the survey team, who have been mapping the areas since 2009, the latest wreck is in better structural shape than the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires.

This Reuters TV story has wonderful film of divers exploring the wreck. The visibility is excellent so you can get a close look at the remains of ship and its contents. Also heads up for the outstanding photo bomb from an indignant cephalopod at the 27 second mark.


Lost Henry VIII tapestry found in Spain

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

A monumental tapestry commissioned by King Henry VIII as part of a set whose whereabouts have been unknown since the 18th century has been found in Spain. The tapestry was one of nine depicting scenes from the life of Saint Paul designed by Flemish master Pieter Coecke van Aelst and woven in his Brussels workshop in the late 1530s. Eighteen feet wide without its original borders and woven with gold and silver threads, the tapestry was of the highest quality available in Europe.

This tapestry is entitled Saint Paul Directing the Burning of the Heathen Books at Ephesus and it shows three episodes from Paul’s visits to Ephesus as reported in Acts of the Apostles. In the upper left Paul converts 12 men of Ephesus and the Holy Spirit descends upon them. In the upper right Paul resurrects Eutychus after he fell asleep during one of Paul’s interminable sermons and fell out of a three story window. The main scene in the center of the tapestry is Paul burning books of magic.

The Paul series was delivered to Hampton Court between September of 1538 and September of 1539. If those dates ring a bell, they should. That’s when Henry sent out his minions to dissolve the monasteries, take their stuff and destroy what they didn’t take. The tapestry was a big neon sign of support for Henry’s destruction of religious iconography, relics, “erroneous books and Bible translations,” so-called idols, etc. No less a Christian leader than Paul burned books, after all, so clearly the Bible and God were on Henry’s side in his fight to quash ungodly Christian denominations.

Tapestries were the ultimate artistic displays of wealth in the 16th century. They cost far more to make in materials, artisanship and work hours than paintings of any medium, and when the nobility and aristocracy were the customers, tapestries were literal treasures, made of precious metals, sumptuous fabrics and colored with dyes derived from expensive raw materials. The luxury-loving Henry VIII was an avid tapestry collector and assembled a collection of some 2,500 pieces of exceptional quality. Pieter Coecke van Aelst was one of his favorite designers.

Only a tiny fraction of that great assemblage is known to have survived. Tapestries went out of fashion in the 18th century and the royal collections were either split up, given away or pilfered or simply fell apart from age. The Paul set were listed in inventories through 1770, after which they disappeared from the historical record. The Burning of the Heathen Books at Ephesus was only known to art historians from a preparatory drawing surviving in Ghent and a fragment of the original cartoon in New York.

Detective work by leading tapestry experts Simon Franses and Thomas P Campbell has confirmed that this was one of Henry VIII’s commissioned treasures, taken to Spain in the 1960s. Mr Franses described it as “the highest achievement of tapestry weaving”. […]

He added: “The comparable pieces are at Hampton Court, the Abraham tapestries, which Henry VIII owned. But they’re very polite, tame Biblical tapestries, whereas this is a dynamic, energetic piece…It’s absolutely splendid. There’s nothing to touch it in the Victoria & Albert, the Royal Collection or the National Trust.”

Research reveals that a Spanish dealer sold the St Paul tapestry to a Barcelona collector in the 1960s. It was eventually sold to an anonymous buyer in Madrid, who has now sent it to Britain to be cleaned and conserved.

The collector first began to suspect a Hampton Court provenance in 2013. He applied to the Spanish government for an export license but was denied.

Now research has firmly established the link. Franses called on Spain to grant an export licence. He hopes that a UK public collection could then acquire it for considerably less than its value of more than £5m, if it came on the open market.

The tapestry is going on public display for the first time in its long, storied life at Franses in London from October 1st through the 19th. The exhibition, Henry VIII: the Unseen Tapestries, features three other Henrician tapestries, including the Russell Garter Tapestry which is the only surviving tapestry portrait of Henry VIII. On display with the tapestries will be two important textiles from the Tudor period — the silk Armorial Table Carpet of Anne of Cleves’ brother, and the chasuble of Edmund Bonner, chaplain to Wolsey and Henry VIII — that are also on loan to the gallery.


Gutenberg Bible gets new digs at Library of Congress

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

The Gutenberg Bible is prized as the earliest full-size book printed in Europe with moveable type. Johann Gutenberg and his colleagues Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer printed the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible written by Saint Jerome in the 5th century, in Mainz in 1455. Of that first run of the first printed book, 48 copies have survived, only twenty of them complete. It is so important and so rare that collectors spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual pages of a Gutenberg Bible.

The Library of Congress’ copy is especially rare. It was printed on vellum (animal skin parchment), not paper. Of the 48 surviving Gutenberg Bibles, 12 were printed on vellum and only three of those perfect, complete, intact copies of the Bible on vellum are known to survive. The LoC’s is one of the three complete ones and it is the only one of them to have been printed in three volumes. It is a spectacular example, the type deeply and cleanly impressed even though it was one of the first works produced on the brand-new moveable type printing press. The other vellum Bibles are at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and the British Library in London.

For more than 350 years after its publication, the Bible belonged to the Benedictine abbey of St. Blasius in the Black Forest, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. In 1809, it was transferred to Abbey of St. Paul in Carinthia, southern Austria. It was bought by inventor, chemist and avid collector Otto Vollbehr for $250,000 in 1926. Vollbehr never actually held the book in his extensive collection. He planned to sell it in the United States — part of the sales pitch he made to St. Paul’s, in fact, was that he would sell it to an “American church prince” — but since he was hardly going to schlepp the precious and delicate three volume set all over the States, he made a sort of preview pamphlet and schlepped that around the country instead along with a collection of thousands of incunabula he was trying to sell.

In 1928 the incunabula went on display at the Library of Congress. Vollbehr offered to sell the collection and the Bible to the Library. It took some doing in the wake of the Great Depression, but on July 6th, 1930, President Herbert Hoover signed the act of Congress authorizing the purchase of 3,255 volumes and the St. Blasius-St. Paul Gutenberg Bible for a total of $1.5 million.

It has been on display in the corridor off of the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, originally out in the open on a handsome wooden display, then in a closed case. The case is no longer up to snuff so it is being replaced with a new one custom designed to exhibit and protect one of the most precious books in history.

An 11-foot-tall vertical case has been designed for the Gutenberg Bible to meet exact specifications for its long-term conservation. It will be kept at a consistent, cool temperature of 50 degrees and a consistent humidity to help preserve the 563-year-old book, according to Elmer Eusman, chief of the Library’s Conservation Division. The case also includes a new early warning system for fire prevention that will constantly monitor the air.

Frosted mirrors and illumination within the display will create a special effect, emphasizing the Bible in a new way. Resting on a small cradle, the Bible will appear as if it’s floating. The design is meant to celebrate the historic book. Exhibition text will be presented on one side of the case for visitors.

On Friday, the Bible was taken off public view for the first time in more than 70 years to make the necessary arrangements for the installation of the new case. The case was built off site and will have to be broken down into component parts, moved to the Library of Congress and rebuilt The new case has been built by a vendor off site. It will be deconstructed, moved into the Library and rebuilt on site in the Thomas Jefferson Building. That will take place on October 29th. The Bible will move in to its new digs a month or so later after thorough environmental testing has been performed.


Is Lincoln’s iconic stovepipe hat really Lincoln’s?

Friday, September 21st, 2018

The most prized possession of many important artifacts in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Illinois, is a stovepipe hat belonging to the president. The hat appears to have an impeccable provenance. Lincoln bought the beaver-fur stovepipe hat from a shop in Springfield in the mid-1850s, a period when he was active in state politics while aiming for national office, loudly voicing his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and transitioning from the dying Whig party to the Republican party. He paid $4.00 for it.

Lincoln’s tall stovepipe hat is so strongly associated with him that the outline alone is an iconic representation of the slain president. It was a deliberate choice of Abraham Lincoln’s to wear an extra tall chapeau to emphasize his atypical height. He was 6’4″ in an era when the average height for an adult male was 5’7″ and the hat is seven inches high. That made him just shy of seven feet tall when he wore it, a veritable giant even today.

Only three of Lincoln’s stovepipe hats are known to survive and the Springfield museum’s beaver hat is believed to be the oldest. The only problem is there is no hard evidence that the hat really did belong to Abraham Lincoln. The museum acquired it at auction in 2007. It was one of 1,600 Lincoln-related artifacts from collector Louise Taper that were bought for $25 million. The hat alone cost $6.5 million.

You’d think at those nosebleed prices the non-profit Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation (ALPLF) would investigate thoroughly before going deep into debt to buy the collection. Louise Taper was on the board of the foundation in 2007. That may or may not have played a part in the acquisition. She isn’t talking and neither is the foundation.

Since the hat entered the museum collection, the story told was that Lincoln had given the hat as a thank-you gift to an Illinois farmer in 1858. A descendant of the farmer signed an affidavit in 1958 confirming the gift, only she said Lincoln had given it to him during the farmer’s visit to Washington after 1861. The person who appraised the hat for millions of dollars did no personal research, relying solely on a report of research done by the foundation, a report that is nowhere to be found today.

In 2013, experts at the Smithsonian and Chicago History Museum reported that there was simply insufficient evidence to claim it as Lincoln’s hat. The affidavit is basically all they have to go on, and it contradicts the museum’s own statements. Without documentation of the hat having belonged to Lincoln, the museum should strongly qualify its claim that it was Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, the report concluded.

With $9.7 million still outstanding on the sale price and much fundraising needed to pay it off, in 2017 the ALPLF secretly asked the FBI to DNA-test residue on the hat in the hopes it might confirm conclusively that it once had topped Abraham Lincoln’s noggin. The conclusion was … inconclusive. No period DNA could be recovered, only contemporary DNA from someone who had handled it in comparatively recent years.

The hat may not have recoverable DNA, but it does bear some evidence of its wearer. It bears the mark of a hatmaker who was working in Springfield in the mid-1850s. It is Lincoln’s hat size. The band is stretched out from having had important papers stuffed inside of it, a practice Lincoln was known to indulge in. The are wear marks from two fingers on the brim, indicating that it was worn regularly by one individual for a very long time.

Museum chief Alan Lowe expressed frustration over the foundation’s secrecy, but downplayed the DNA test results, saying it would be hard to get a perfect match from an 180-year-old item handled by many people.

“It is important to understand that neither of these initiatives produced new evidence about the hat’s origins,” Lowe said in a statement.

Thanks to the publicity, the museum will begin a new search for evidence about the hat’s past, he added.

“What we learn, no matter what it says about the hat’s origins, will be shared with the public.”

Meanwhile, the pride and joy of the museum has been removed from public display. Once the research is done, the museum will decide whether the hat goes back on display at Lincoln’s lid or remains in the shadows as a $6.5 million pig in a poke.





August 2020


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