Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Still life thought to be fake Van Gogh is real

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

A still life painting long thought to be a fake has been authenticated as a genuine work by Vincent van Gogh by experts from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Still Life with Fruit and Chestnuts has been in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco since it was donated by collectors Bruno and Sadie Adriani in 1960. It is unsigned, but an inscription on the back of the painting describes it as “Nature mort, peint par Vincent van Gogh.” Anyone can write anything on the back of a canvas, however, and it doesn’t make it so.

The main sticking point was with the date it was created, which at the time of the donation was believed to be 1884 when Van Gogh was in Nuenen. The coloring was off that period, so experts disputed its authenticity and the painting of two pears and an apple among chestnuts was not included in two of the standard catalogues of the artist’s work and again in a third published in 2013. The Fine Arts Museum mostly chose not to display it, although it has been exhibited for several years at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum

For the past two years, Van Gogh Museum scholars have made a painstaking technical and stylistic investigation into the still life, as well as a thorough search through the historical record.

Specialists at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have now accepted it as authentic. They determined that the canvas and the paints match Van Gogh’s work. Stylistically, it is regarded as fitting in with the still lifes which the artist made in Paris between October and December 1886.

The painting’s provenance can now be traced. There is reference to “pears and chestnuts” in an 1890 inventory, compiled shortly after Van Gogh’s death, with the word “Bernard” added. This is assumed to refer to his friend Emile Bernard. Bernard’s mother sold a work with that title (and the dimensions of the San Francisco picture) to the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1899.

The first husband of Sadie acquired the picture in 1922. Sadie, an American artist, later married Bruno Adriani, a German lawyer and cultural official, and they emigrated to America in the 1930s.

Researchers also found a little surprise lurking underneath the fruits and nuts: the canvas was reused so the still life is actually not just an authentic Van Gogh, but two in one. Infrared reflectography found a portrait underneath the visible painting. It’s of a woman wearing a scarf and was likely made shortly before Van Gogh left Antwerp for Paris.

The freshly authenticated Still Life with Fruit and Chestnuts will celebrate its recognition with a trip to Frankfurt this fall. It will be loaned to the Städel Museum for the exhibition Making Van Gogh: A German Love Story which runs from October 23rd until February 16th 2020.

P.S. – I watched At Eternity’s Gate today and thought it was excellent, very evocatively filmed, especially how they shot Vincent-eye-view scenes. Willem Dafoe’s performance was understated and real. I found it so much more genuine and plausible that the than the tortured artist scenery-chewing of Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life which bears no relation, imo, to the Vincent of his correspondence.

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I fell for a “Swiss Private Collection” lie, dammit

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

My only excuse, and it’s a terrible one that you should throw back in my face in disgust, is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art fell for it too. Had they accepted a fraudulent ownership record starring a Swiss private collector a few years back I would have laughed mirthlessly at the very idea of it, but the sensitivity to potentially looted artifacts is so much higher now that museums and auction houses have been dragged kicking and screaming into giving a damn by source countries creating legal and PR nightmares for them. That such a recent, high-profile, much-publicized sale could be a looted artifact with phony papers is an ugly testament to how deep the rot runs in the antiquities market.

In September 2017, the Met announced the acquisition of what is without question the most beautiful, perfectly-preserved and uniquely rich cartonnage coffin I’ve ever seen. Made from layers of linen, gesso and resin, covered in gilding front and back and lined with sheets of silver foil inside the lid, the mummiform coffin was the final resting place of Late Ptolemaic official Nedjemankh, a priest of Heryshef in Heracleopolis Magna.

The gilded coffin of Nedjemankh went on display immediately in the museum’s Egyptian Art gallery, and soon got a dedicated exhibition that ran from July 2018 until Tuesday, February 12th. Or at least it was meant to. There was supposed to be an exhibition tour beginning on February 22nd. No longer. I don’t know exactly which day, but the coffin was taken off display this week.

On Friday the museum announced that it was returning the coffin to Egypt because the Manhattan’s DA Office had found evidence that the Swiss private collection and legal export document from 1971 were nothing but happy horseshit conjured up by traffickers in looted antiquities. Not only was it not legally exported in 1971, it didn’t leave Egypt until 2011 and I don’t need to tell you the circumstances were very, very far from legal.

Notwithstanding the representations that the coffin had been exported from Egypt in 1971, recent evidence suggests it was looted from Egypt in 2011. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said, “Stewards of the world’s most important artifacts have a duty to hold their acquisitions to the highest level of scrutiny. Following my Office’s investigation, this beautiful piece of ancient Egyptian history will soon be returned to its rightful place. Our Antiquities Trafficking Unit will continue to root out stolen antiquities in our fight to stop the looting of historic sites and the trade of stolen artifacts around the world.”

The seller was a Paris dealer named Christophe Kunicki. The Met is less than pleased with him having paid 3.5 million euros (just under $4 million) for the coffin in July of 2017, just six years after it was stolen from Egypt. This character has yet to comment on the fraudulent sale and the Met plans to consider “all means,” according to spokesman Kenneth Weine, for the recovery of the $4 million they were conned out of. There is no word on any criminal action that might be taken against him, and there probably won’t be.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today it will review and revise its acquisitions process. Max Hollein, Director of The Met, said, “Our museum must be a leader among our peers in the respect for cultural property and in the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow. We will learn from this event—specifically I will be leading a review of our acquisitions program—to understand what more can be done to prevent such events in the future.”

Here’s one revision to any museum or collector’s acquisition policy that needs to be carved in stone from now on: buy nothing purporting to come from Swiss private collections. It’s a scam every damn time. The Met apologized to Egypt profusely and abjectly, as well it should, and I do the same to you, as well I should. I can’t believe I was so thoroughly duped by the oldest lie in the book, one I have mocked and excoriated ad nauseum in this very blog a million times before.

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Verrocchio’s Putto with Dolphin restored

Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

Putto with Dolphin, a bronze sculpture by 15th century master Andrea del Verrocchio, is undergoing much-needed restoration in time for a landmark exhibition of Verocchio’s work. This is the first scientific conservation the Putto will have ever undergone, which is remarkable considering it spent the first 500 years of its life outdoors.

The polished bronze depicts a chubby winged boy standing on one leg on a half-sphere. In his arms he holds a squirming dolphin. It was commissioned in 1470 by Lorenzo de’ Medici for Villa Medici at Careggi, one of the family’s country homes in the Tuscan hills. Cosimo died there in 1464, and when his grandson Lorenzo, the future Magnificent, took over as head of the family and de facto ruler of Florence in December 1469, he wasted no time in making improvements the Careggi villa and grounds, especially the gardens. The putto was made to top a fountain in the garden, with a spray of water emerging from the dolphin’s rostrum. In 1557, the bronze was moved to the Palazzo Vecchio where it was placed atop the porphyry fountain in the first courtyard. The priceless masterwork remained there until the 1950s, when it was removed from the fountain and put on display as a museum exhibit on the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio. A replica was installed in its former position on the fountain.

The restoration project began in 2018 in view of the public in a dedicated workspace in the Palazzo Vecchio. A technical analysis of its condition underneath the surface found evidence of deterioration of the bronze. The surface needed extensive cleaning as calcium and water stains had built up over the centuries. There were also residues left by previous attempts at restoration, some of them using harmful substances. Conservators carefully removed those residues and revealed previously unknown details. They were then able to address the biggest threat: corrosion of the bronze. The last step is to cover the surface with gentle, non-invasive treatments to even out the color and protect the bronze from further corrosion. The process has been thoroughly documented through photographs and videos to learn more about Verrocchio’s sculpture and for the benefit of future conservation efforts.

The restored Putto will go on display next month in Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo at the Palazzo Strozzi, the first ever monographic Verocchio exhibition. It will illuminate his working process thanks to a new technical study of his work, and bring together for the first time more than 120 artworks, paintings, drawings and sculptures by Verrocchio and the masters who learned their art in his workshop. The most important artists of the Renaissance — Leonardo da Vinci, Domenico del Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino — all studied under Verrocchio. Together they defined the artistic output of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s Florence between 1460 and 1490. With loans from major museums worldwide, the show will trace the artistic connections linking Leonardo to Verocchio, reconstructing the formation of his style in the interchange between student and master.

The exhibition begins in Florence, running from March 9th through July 14th at the Palazzo Strozzi, with a special section at the National Museum of the Bargello (home of Verrocchio’s David, iconic symbol of Republicanism). It will then travel to the second and last location, Washington D.C., where the National Gallery of Art will host Verrocchio: Master and Mentor, from September 29th to February 2nd, 2020.

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State bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York restored

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

An age-blackened four-poster bed from the Tudor era that evidence strongly suggests is the first state bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York has been restored nine years after it was discovered in shambles.

The Bed of Roses is the only surviving English medieval royal bed and the only known surviving piece of furniture from the Tudor-era Palace of Westminster. Tudor-era royal furnishings suffered wide-scale destruction during the English Civil War. It was made for the wedding of Henry VII (1485-1509) and Elizabeth of York (1485-1503) held at Westminster Abbey on January 18th, 1486.

The bed was dismantled and dumped in a parking lot for the garbage collectors to pick up, only to be rescued and sold at auction in Chester as a “profusely carved Victorian four poster bed with armorial shields.” It was bought online for £2200 by dealer Ian Coulson, owner of the Langley Collection of rare historic furniture. He thought it was a fine example of Arts and Crafts style furniture, but when he picked it up and took his first in-person look at it, he realized the oak parts were far older than 150 years. There were marks of hand tools and numerous repairs done over the course of many more years than

DNA testing of the wood identified it as European oak of a type that grows from southern France to Belarus. This oak was top of the line in the Middle Ages. Unlike the knotty oak native to England, this subspecies was regular enough that it could be sawed on power mills, producing beautiful even boards that were highly sought after by the crowned heads who could afford them. Edward III’s 1360 bed, for example, was made out of Latvian old-growth oak boards. The European oak was uniformly used across the whole bed, and the boards were treated with the same paint. If the frame were a composite made from salvaged elements, there would be inconsistencies that do not exist in this bed frame.

Coal primer was found under the varnish and fragments of what was once a colorful paint job . The remains of that paint were tested and found to include ultramarine, the pigment made from lapis lazuli that was more expensive than gold in the Tudor era.

The bed’s original residents did not have their initials carved onto the bed. No HR to make Henry’s ownership clear. However, the iconography does strongly point to him and his bride. There are single roses, representing the red of rose of Lancaster for Henry VII and the white rose of York for Elizabeth. Only they would use them and only for a few months. The double Tudor rose that would replace the single roses was created in April of 1486. There are also four lion finials and coats of arms of England and France on the headboard and footboard.

The headboard has a central panel showing Adam and Eve facing each other. Between them is a cockatrice (a beaked serpent) and under their feet are a dragon and a lion.Their faces resemble extant portraiture of Henry and Elizabeth, and even with demons and dangers between them and below them, still the serene figures triumph together. They are redemptive, symbols of salvation and the mystical union of God and Mary. The comparison of the King and Queen to saviors from evil were common in the Tudor era, especially so for Henry VII and the union of the warring houses.

The ceremonial bedchamber of Westminster Palace where Henry and Elizabeth would have gotten to work producing an heir to the throne was known as the Painted Chamber after the murals depicting religious royalty themes. In 1819, the mural on the north wall — the coronation of Edward the Confessor — was rediscovered. It burned 25 years later, but records of it indicate the shape of the bed and posts match the arcade at the center of the mural exactly. Symbols of fertility are appropriately present for a state bed. There’s an acorn, a bunch of grapes and a strawberry.

The royal coat of arms, the cross of Edward the Confessor, the roses, the Biblical references, the top-quality craftsmanship, expensive imported wood and insanely expensive ultramarine pigment all strongly indicate that this is the royal letto matrimoniale, but the one fact that would come closest to fully confirming its identity as the marriage bed of Henry and Elizabeth has thus far been impossible to ascertain. All attempts to radiocarbon date the wood have failed due to the layers of varnish. Dendrochronology results have been all over the place. Still, the odds of such an exceptional piece laden with the qualities and symbolism of the royal union that put paid to the Wars of the Roses being any other bed are slim to none.

Owned by the Langley Collection, the Bed of Roses is often loaned or exhibited in museums. Most recently it was displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum where it was the subject of a symposium on research into the bed’s history.

Ian Coulson had made a documentary about the research into the bed and the restoration process. It’s fantastic. I only wish it were longer.

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Prehistoric musical instrument found in Scottish crannog

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

It’s a small piece — a couple of inches of notched wood — but of great significance because it is believed to be a surviving fragment of one of the earliest musical instruments ever discovered in western Europe. It was found last week in the village of Fearnan on the north shore of Loch Tay in Perthshire, central Scotland. An underwater excavation of the banks discovered the object, thought to be the bridge of a plucked string instrument. It dates to around 500 B.C.

Crannogs were dwellings built above the water in lakes as early as 3000 B.C. Some of them were used for centuries, often continuously occupied, repaired and expanded upon until they formed elaborate artificial islands. The waterlogged environment can be a boon for the preservation of organic material

The Scottish Crannog Centre has received a grant from the National Lottery to investigate the bridge and its origins. Founded in 1997 and granted official accredited status by the Museums Galleries Scotland in late 2017, the Centre plans to use the instrument to launch a study of the role music played in Iron Age settlements in the area. A wood of the bridge has been crafted with 3D printing technology by Marco Gilardi of the University of the West of Scotland.

The Centre is a living museum that attracts 25,000 visitors a year, renown locally and abroad for its replica roundhouse built on stilts on the shallow lakeside just as they were in the Iron Age, and participate in period activities using accurate replica artifacts, including weaving, cooking, grinding grain and making fire. Rowing a replica longboat is one for the bucket list. As the museum’s mission is in exploring the daily life of Crannog communities, so having an artifact that exemplifies their music is a unique opportunity to study cultural aspects that rarely appear in the archaeological record.

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Facial Recognition for Coins

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg, Germany, have developed a specialized scanner and software akin to facial recognition technology to record historic coins in heretofore impossible detail. Coins collections poise significant inventory and conservation problems for the institutions that hold them. They can’t be labelled or barcoded. They can’t be marked in any way without interfering with the surface.

The Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology has 20,000 coins in its archives. Keeping proper track of them for loans to museums, preventing damage, even ascertaining their authenticity pose significant challenges to the staff. The ever-expanding collection has to be documented by hand, a Herculean labour that is never complete and highly prone to error. In conjunction with a larger project of digitization of the State Office’s archaeological materials, the Fraunhofer Institute was employed to devise a system that would scan the coins in its collection.

“The State Office aimed to digitize its complete numismatic collection. This gave rise to the idea of creating a digital fingerprint with which individual coins can be recognized and classified – much like facial recognition of people. The fingerprint replaces the barcode as it were,” says Dr. Christian Teutsch, research scientist at the Fraunhofer IFF, recounting the first contact with the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology. The closely collaborating partners designed a visual data acquisition system and software analysis system in their project “Digital Fingerprints of Archaeological Finds: Artifact Identification and Recognition Prototype”, which does this by digitizing and exactly describing the old coins and obtaining unique signatures from the coins. The scanning system had to achieve a recognition rate of ninety-eight percent or more, operate contactless, and acquire the data of both faces. Gold, silver, bronze and copper coins with diameters of five to seventy-five millimeters were tested.

The novel scanner O.S.C.A.R., short for Optical System for Coin Analysis and Recognition, not only scans coins’ visual features but also the minutest signs of wear such as scratching, clipping, contours, edges, pitting and denting, which render an object unique. This is indispensable for being able to identify many coins of the same type. “Obviously, changes can be detected when a coin is scanned twice. This makes it possible, for instance, to check upon the return of loaned coins whether scratching has occurred, the artifact has been damaged or even if it is a fake,” says the engineer, an employee of the Measurement and Testing Technology Business Unit.

It’s a simple process that takes no more than a few seconds. The barcode on the bag that holds a coin is first scanned, then the coin is put under the scanner. With the push of a button, the scanner records base color and surface features, more than 1000 of them, of both sides of the coins. Measurements and color charts standardize the data which is then transferred to the software. It analyzes the data to create a digital signature that is saved in a searchable database. That makes the coins themselves and everything known about them instantly accessible even if the barcoded bag is lost. It also makes it a simple matter to make this rich data available to scholars and the interested public. Numismatists and collectors can use the scan information to make new connections between coins, their find locations and all the history that is writ on their surfaces.

The project has been such a smashing success that 10,000 coins in the State Office collection have already been scanned. The remaining half will be digitized shortly.

This is a major breakthrough and not just for numismatics collections. The scanner is targeted to coins, but it could be modified for use with paintings, artifacts, documents, ephemera, anything in heritage collections.

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Leonardo’s thumbprint found on Royal Collections drawing

Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

A fingerprint believed to have been left by Leonardo da Vinci has been found on one of his drawings in the UK’s Royal Collections. It was discovered by Alan Donnithorne, formerly the head paper conservator of the Royal Collections, who found the thumbprint on a red ink anatomical drawing. Fingerprints have been found on other works by Leonardo da Vinci, but this is the most likely one to have been left by the artist himself on one of the drawings in the Royal Collections.

The drawing, The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman, was made around 1509-1510. Donnithorne found the thumbprint on the left side of the sheet near the subject’s arm. The mark was left in the same dark red ink as Leonardo used to make the drawing. There is also a smudged print left by his left index finger on the back of the sheet.

The UK is going all-out to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death on May 2nd of this year. It is taking the utmost advantage of the Queen Elizabeth II’s 550 works by the master, the largest single collection of Leonardos in the world. Remarkably, they’ve been together as a group since Leonardo died half a millennium ago and have been in the Royal Collection since the 17th century. To mark the anniversary, there will be 12 simultaneous exhibitions of Leonardo drawings across the UK from February 1st through May 6th. Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing features 12 different drawings on display at each of the 12 museums in Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Sunderland, Belfast and Glasgow. The 144 drawings cover a wide range of interests pursued by the polymath: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany.

The anatomical drawing and its thumbprint will go on display Friday at the National Museum Cardiff. After that, all 144 drawings will join up with a few dozen more of Leonardo’s works from the Royal Collections to go on display at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace from May 24th until October 13th. This will be the largest exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci works in 65 years. The exhibition will travel to Scotland next where it will be exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh, from November 22nd through March 15th, 2020. That will be the largest collection of Leonardo’s works ever shown in Scotland.

In conjunction with the exhibitions, Alan Donnithorne has published a new scientific study of 80 of the Leonardo works in the Royal Collections. Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look reexamines those works in the light of the latest analytical technologies, including microscopy, ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence (XRF).

One by one, Leonardo’s processes of creation are revealed, from his choice of paper and the composition of the specialist grounds used for his drawings, to his first touches in chalk, ink or metalpoint, and on to the finished compositions.

Many of these features are of course invisible to the naked eye, and have been so for centuries, ever since Leonardo took his pen from the paper. Infrared images reveal underdrawings unseen for 500 years, published here for the first time. Ultraviolet photography brings back to life now-vanished metalpoint sketches; while spectrographic analysis allows us to explore the origin and precise chemistry of Leonardo’s papers and grounds.

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The Dresden Mars returns to Dresden

Friday, January 25th, 2019

A bronze statuette of the god Mars by Mannerist master Giambologna is returning to Dresden almost a century after it was sold away. Its homecoming is so heralded because the sculptor himself sent it to Dresden 432 years ago.

Born Jean Boulogne in Douai, Flanders, in 1529, Giambologna traveled to Rome in 1550 where he was influenced by Classical art and Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Raphael. He moved to Florence in 1553 where his refined approach to the contortionist Mannerist style earned him a position as the top sculptor at the court of the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany by 1560.

The Medici were so protective of their greatest sculptor that they never allowed him to leave Florence out of fear that one of the Habsburg imperial courts would lure him away. His works were so famous they were widely copied. Very few of his sculptures have undisputed documentation of having been produced by his hand during his lifetime. The Dresden Mars is one of them.

It is the earliest cast of the artist’s Mars, made by Giambologna as a personal gift for Christian I, Elector of Saxony (1560-1591). It is the most significant and powerful of his male nudes, the strength of the mythological deity conveyed by his dynamic stride, detailed musculature and intense glare. The usual attributes of Mars — helmet, shield, spear — are absent, with only the hilt of a sword clutched in his right fist standing in for them.

It was made before 1587, the year it arrived in Saxony. Inventory records of the Dresden Kunstkammer note its arrival: “Brass cast portrait of Mars, sent by Giovanni Bologna to His Grace the Elector.” It’s the only Giambologna piece known to have been created for a prince and the sculptor made certain that it was of royal quality. Christian I was keenly aware that it was an exceptional work. In return, the Elector commissioned a hugely expensive necklace from goldsmith Urban Schneeweiss to thank Giambologna for his generous gift. It is believed he was wearing the prized jewel when he sat for a 1591 chalk portrait by Hendrik Goltzius now in the collection of the Teylers Museum in Haarlem.

After three centuries at the Kunstkammer, the masterpiece went into private ownership in 1924, a casualty of the complicated aftermath of World War I. In the wake of Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the abdication of the Kaiser, the last King of Saxony, Frederick Augustus III abdicated as well. The kingdom became the Free State of Saxony, a semi-autonomous state in the Weimar Republic. The new state confiscated the former king’s assets but he refuse to walk away from them as he had the throne. Instead he hired a lawyer and in 1919 sued the Free State of Saxony for illegally requisitioning his family patrimony. He claimed a passel of real estate, millions in cash and securities and 17.5 million marks’ worth of art.

A commission was formed to negotiate a settlement. It took many years of stops and starts, amendments and provisos before the deal was sealed. In 1924, Frederick Augustus got castles, lots of cash and a buttload of art from the collections of multiple museums, including the Kupferstichkabinett Dresden, now the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD).

He was more into the castles and cash than the art. The Dresden Mars was consigned to an art gallery in Berlin which sold it to Theodor Plieninger, General Director of Chemische Werke Griesheim-Elektron, in 1927. Griesheim-Elektron gave it to a member of the board of directors Constantin Jacobi as a retirement present in 1943. Sure beats the usual gold watch. It remained in his family until 1988 when his son and heir Walter Jacobi gave it Bayer AG.

In 2018, Bayer decided to sell Mars at a Sotheby’s auction. The company’s art collection is almost entirely modern, with the Giambologna as its only Renaissance piece and the infusion of millions of dollars from the sale would give them the chance to grow the collection’s contemporary art. Sotheby’s pre-sale estimate was £3-5 million ($4-6.6 million) and it was thrilled to be handling an original Giambologna because they basically never come on the market.

A week before the auction, the SKD, armed with contributions from Free State of Saxony, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the Friends of the SKD, approached Bayer AG offering a private sale. On July 3rd, the day before the scheduled auction, the deal was made and the lot withdrawn.

The Dresden Mars will go on permanent display in the SKD’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister when it reopens after refurbishment in December of this year. As of this week, it is going on a Welcome Home Tour through Saxony, beginning at the Stadt-und Bergbaumuseum Freiberg then moving to the Schloss Hartenfels in Torgau and making its last stop on the tour at the Schlossbergmuseum Chemnit.

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Bodleian acquires rare medieval book chest

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries has acquired a rare late 15th century book chest. The Bodleian’s collection of manuscripts and early printed books is one of the largest in the world, but this is its first book coffer and it’s a special one. At 8.5 x 12.6 x 5.5 inches in size, it is one of the largest examples of a book coffer from this period known to survive.

This acquisition gives us greater insight into the ‘everyday life’ of books and print culture more broadly. The coffer provides a link between books held at the Bodleian and cultural objects which were once united, but now usually live apart in libraries and museums around the world.

Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, said:

“The Bodleian collects books and manuscripts but also objects which helps us to understand the history and culture of the book – how they were kept, used, moved and understood. The coffer is a remarkable item which is both utilitarian and devotional and preserves an exceptionally rare woodcut in its original context. Among other things, it shows us that our preoccupation with carrying information around with us in mobile devices – including texts and images – is nothing new.”

The coffer is made of leather-covered wood and is lined with red canvas. The cover is wrapped with nine iron bands, hinges and a lock to secure the high-value contents. Also known as a messenger’s box, it has two iron loops on the side through which leather straps would have been threaded through so it could be carried on a person’s shoulders or attached to a horse’s saddle.

A woodcut depicting God the Father in Majesty is affixed to the inside of the lid, one of only four surviving impressions of this print. His presence would have blessed the contents and protected them during their journeys. Other coffers from this time also contain religious prints on the inside lid, and it’s possible they served double duty as portable altars.

It is a version of an illumination in a 1491 Missal by the Master of the Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany, a Paris illuminator who was active in the last quarter of the 15th century. He was a versatile artist who created designs for woodcuts, metalcuts, tapestries and stained glass as well as creating illuminated manuscripts for his highest-end clientele. The hand-colored prints found in messenger’s boxes were produced in Paris between 1490 and 1510, which is how we know where and when this coffer was made. These boxes are the only sources of single-leaf French prints before 1500. They are literally the only examples we have of the dawn of printmaking in France.

We have confirmation that these types of lockboxes were used to transport precious books as well as other valuables because depictions of them being used for this purpose have survived, most notably a Rest on the Flight into Egypt made in Antwerp around 1530 which shows a partially open coffer by Mary’s side. At the back is a small book with metal clasps. In front of it are a rosary, a pair of scissors and a brush.

The coffer has gone display at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in a new exhibition, Thinking Inside the Box: Carrying Books Across Cultures, which runs until February 17th. You can see 3D models of the box here.

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A tale of Visigothic treasure lost and found

Monday, January 21st, 2019

It was August 25th, 1858. The night before had been dark and stormy, but this one was moonlit and clear. Francisco Morales and María Pérez were traveling on the road to Guadamar with their daughter Escolástica and a donkey when they reached the Guarrazar spring six miles outside Toledo. While answering the call of nature, Escolástica spied under the white glimmer of the moonlight a square hole barely covered with two flat stones. In the gap between them something shone gone. That something turned out to be a priceless treasure of gold crosses, goblets and other objects festooned with precious stones, pearls and glass. Francisco, María and Escolástica dug up everything they could find, rinsed the artifacts in the spring and quickly made off with their ill-gotten gains.

They didn’t know it, but they weren’t alone that night. Domingo de la Cruz, a gardener who owned an orchard near Guarrazar spring, had observed them digging up buried treasure. The next night, he went back to the site and did some of his own digging, finding a second, smaller collection of treasure. He too made off with it. Nobody told the authorities.

It was a hideous free-for-all. Within days unusual gold begemmed pieces began cropping up in the shops of Toledo’s famed gold and silversmiths. Many of them were broken up, melted down and reused making them untraceable. It’s said that one smith was so torn over what to do with a unique gold dove that he threw it in the Tagus. Gemstone trader José Navarro took a different approach. He had a yen for archaeology, so he bought numerous fragments and painstakingly pieced them back together, reconstructing the votive crowns commissioned by Visigothic royalty as donations to the Church, royals that can be identified with precision because pendant letters spell out the name of the exalted donors. Navarro did all this work under strictest secrecy. In 1859, his work as complete as he could get it, Navarro sold the crowns, pendants and assorted pieces to to Edmond Du Sommerard, director of the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Cluny, France.

That’s when the news of this exceptional discovery finally broke wide. Cluny published their acquisition in the scientific press and Spain was horrified to discover that incalculably precious cultural patrimony had been found only after it was lost. The Spanish government repeatedly demanded that France return the treasure, but was blown off by Napoleon III and subsequent governments.

José Amador de los Ríos, art historian, archaeologist and a pioneer in recognizing the literary and artistic wealth of Medieval Spain, was enlisted to excavate and document the find site in 1859 after the treasure had made headlines. He found a few loose pearls and gemstones that had fallen off the jewels, graves, some architectural remains and lots of evidence that the site had been thoroughly picked over by local looters who had heard about the treasure through the gossip mill.

It was Ríos who recognized that while the form of the votive crown and the decoration were of Byzantine design, the pieces were manufactured locally. The conventional wisdom among European historians at that time was that Spain was a penurious backwater in the early Middle Ages and that the splendors of the Visigoths which had so astounded the Umayyad conquerors who took Toledo in 712 A.D. had to have been Germanic in origin.

In 1861, a very nervous Domingos de la Cruz went to the Royal Estate of Aranjuez where Queen Isabel II was staying and offered her majesty what was left of the treasure he’d discovered. Much hemming and hawing and hypothetical “if somebody happened to have purloined gold Visigothic treasure a few years back and wanted to hand it in, would he get thrown in the dungeon or paid off?” kind of talk ensued. Queen Isabel agreed to accept the remaining treasure — including the votive crown of King Suintila (r. 621-631) — and give Domingos de la Cruz a fabulous pension of 4,000 reals a year in return. The Suintila crown was stolen in 1921 and has never been found.

Cluny kept Guarrazar’s Visigothic treasure for 80 years until Heinrich Himmler stepped into the picture. In 1941, with France under Nazi occupation, Himmler returned most of the treasure to fellow fascist General Francisco Franco. Six votive crowns, a goblet and crosses are now in the National Archeological Museum in Madrid while the Cluny Museum still holds three of the crowns and a few smaller objects. The Royal Palace in Madrid has one crown left.

With all the loss that has bedeviled Spain’s greatest Visigoth treasure since it was discovered, proper scientific study was long in coming. The first comprehensive study took place in 1995 and revealed that the gemstones traveled great distances. The cabochon sapphires are from Sri Lanka. The emeralds are from the Austrian Tyrol.

The question of why they had been buried in the first place was still open, however. Historians speculated that the priceless religious artifacts had been secreted in consecrated graves to keep them safe from the invasion force of Táriq Ibn Ziyad. Spanish archaeologist Juan Manuel Rojas found this explanation wanting.

With the help of the Guadamur City Hall, Rojas embarked on an investigation that led to the establishment of an archeological site that the public can now visit.

During recent years, the walls of a building more than 30 meters long have been unearthed as well as a basilica, the remains of what appears to have been a palace, a Visigoth graveyard and even a guest house for pilgrims. Rojas’ research has led to the revelation that the place where the treasure was hidden was not a field at all but a religious complex not unlike the one at Lourdes, France, with its own healing water that sprung from the well where Morales cleaned the jewels. So, far from being buried in an ignominious field, the royal treasure had been hidden in a prestigious site whose own ceilings were decked with votive crowns.

When its occupants found out about the unstoppable advance of the Muslim and Berber forces, they sought somewhere to hide the jewels and decided on the graveyard. Raising two tombstones, they removed the bodies, buried the treasure, covered it with cloths and sand and put the corpses back on top. When Escolástica went to relieve herself at the spot more than 1,000 years later, she ducked behind what had once been the wall around the cemetery.

You can see the crown of King Reccesvinth (649-672) in a 3D scan here, another votive crown here and a third here. I regret to inform you that the 360 degree views of the crowns requires Flash to run, but the resolution is great and there are a paucity of good images of the treasure out there, so it’s worth the annoyance to check them out.

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