Stolen Renoir recovered after 33 years

“Naked Woman” was stolen 33 years ago after the Milanese family who owned it brought it to a lab for minor restoration. The always-stellar Carabinieri art squad found it in a gallery in Riccione (northern Italy, close to the Austrian border) on a tip from an appraiser who had been asked to value it.

The appraiser being a, you know, expert in his field, spotted it as a stolen piece and reported it to the police, along with another painting the gallery owner had asked him to appraise, a purported Manet which turns out to be a forgery.

The gallery owner, who is either a keystone kriminal or blind, deaf and dumb, was arrested along with two other people who had had previous run-ins with the law.

The original owner has since died, but “Naked Woman” will most likely be returned to the family, as well as it should be since its provenance was confirmed by the daughter who recognized a spot where she had hit the painting with a ball when she was a little girl.

I don’t even want to know what her dad said when that happened. “No, honey. We don’t play bouncy-ball against the Impressionist master.”

A philatelic Holocaust memorial

Inspired by the rise of Holocaust deniers in the later 70’s, stamp collector, civil rights activist and writer Ken Lawrence began a unique collection: postal memorabilia of the Holocaust.

Over the next 30 years, Lawrence amassed 250 pieces of mail which provide a remarkable, chillingly mundane glimpse into the workaday world of the Holocaust.

His collection includes rarities like an envelope from a letter sent from Dachau in 1933, shortly after the concentration camp opened; a certified-mail receipt for a prayer book sent to a Jew in a French camp; a postal checking account receipt with a crude anti-Semitic cartoon indicating payment for a Nazi propaganda newspaper; the only known letter from Rabbi Leo Baeck, leader of German Jewry, when he was held in the Theresienstadt ghetto; cards from two previously unlisted camps in Romania; and mail sent to a Nazi doctor on trial for war crimes at Nuremberg in 1945.

Mr. Lawrence described the biblical scroll used as a parcel wrapper, which recounts part of the tale of David and Goliath, as “the most viscerally disturbing item” in the collection. “Some scholars have told me it is among the most important surviving evidence of Nazi desecration,” he said.

He’s now sold the collection to the Spungen Family Foundation in Illinois, who will continue to add to the collection while putting it on public display in the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

If you can’t get to Illinois anytime soon, don’t fret. The Spungen Foundation has put the entire collection online. They’re not just thumbnails, either. Every wrenching postcard and notice of arrest is viewable full-size in pdf format.

Update: Namibian shipwreck not Dias’, but still awesome

The booty-packed shipwreck De Beers operators found off the coast of Namibia cannot have been explorer Bartolomeu Dias’ caravel.

Dias ship went down in 1500. The Namibian vessel includes gold coins dated 1525.

The Dias thing was always a bit of a long shot. Meanwhile, the find remains an extraordinarily rich one.

Apart from the gold, the ship’s rich bounty includes 1,4kg of silver coins, copper ingots, cannons and navigational instruments.

A trident indented on the ingots shows them to have been supplied by German merchant house Jakob Fugger — a known supplier of ingots to the Portuguese crown in the era of the Habsburg dynasty.

So the ship is most likely Portuguese — the initial reports had that right — and the cargo includes goods from Asia, Europe and Africa. It’s like a proto-global economy all on one ship.

The team working on the shipwreck is a global one too, including archaeologists from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, the United States, the UK and Portugal. Some of the rare and delicate navigational instruments have been sent to Portugal for further study. The wooden elements are going to the US for preservation. The gold and silver coins have been deposited in a Namibian bank.

Eventually, all the pieces will return to Namibia to join the gold, silver, tin, copper, pewter, elephant tusks, ceramics and cannon.

They should make a maritime museum in the area. That coast is known as “the skeleton coast” because of the many skeletal shipwrecks dotting the seabed. That could the center of a whole new Namibian archaeological movement.

More pictures here.

New bacteria species found in Roman catacombs

Scientists have found 2 new species of the Kribbella bacterium on the walls of the catacomb of St. Callistus. This is significant not only because, hey, new life forms here, but also because studying the wall-chewing bacteria might help with conservation efforts.

By studying bacteria that ruin monuments, the researchers hope to develop methods of protecting cultural heritage sites such as the catacombs in Rome. The two new bacterial species discovered in the tombs also have the potential to produce molecules that have useful properties, like enzymes and antibiotics.

“The special conditions in the catacombs have allowed unique species to evolve,” said Professor Dr Urzì. “In fact, the two different Kribbella species we discovered were taken from two sites very close to each other; this shows that even small changes in the micro-environment can lead bacteria to evolve separately.”

It’s big news, of course, and potentially great news, but it’s set against the bad news that the catacomb walls are decaying.

Ancient Chinese coin found under Albany tavern

Not a contemporary tavern; a 19th century one. It was between Albany and Schenectady back in the day, so it probably saw a great deal of traffic from all kinds of people, including, say Chinese immigrants.

There were also trading ships traveling between Albany and China as far back as the late 18th c.

The coin, which has a square hole stamped in the center and is the thickness of a dime, was discovered about a foot deep in the soil around a stone feature that may have been associated with an older wing of the building, which dates to between 1805 and 1810, said Corey McQuinn, project director for Hartgen Archeological Associates, the company hired to do the work.

From the site, the coin was shipped to Hartgen’s laboratory in North Greenbush, where conservation director Darrell Pinckney placed it in an electrolytic reduction bath, which uses a solution and mild electric current to remove centuries of crust.

The bath revealed Asian markings — possibly Chinese, Pinckney said.

From the context, it seems likely the coin is a couple of hundred years old. They won’t know for sure how old it is or where it comes from until expert Chinese numismatists take a close look at those markings.