Archive for September, 2008

Stolen Renoir recovered after 33 years

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

“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.”

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A philatelic Holocaust memorial

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

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.

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Update: Namibian shipwreck not Dias’, but still awesome

Friday, September 26th, 2008

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.

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New bacteria species found in Roman catacombs

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

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.

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Ancient Chinese coin found under Albany tavern

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

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.

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A little chunk of Elgian marble returns home

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

It’s not any of the major pieces of the Parthenon frieze controversially housed in the British Museum. Lord Elgin gave this fragment to the British consul-general of Sicily when he was passing through with his ill-gotten gain in 1816.

It’s been in Sicily ever since, and now it’s finally home, personally transported to Athens by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

The sculpted fragment of the ancient Greek hunt goddess Artemis, part of the eastern Parthenon frieze depicting the twelve gods of Olympus, had been in the collection of the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum of Palermo.

Greece had sought to secure its return for 13 years, the Greek culture minister said.

The fragment depicts the goddess’ right foot and part of her long robe.

“For the first time in nearly two centuries, a valuable fragment of the Parthenon’s sculpted decoration returns to be embodied where it belongs,” Culture Minister Michalis Liapis told reporters.

Hint, hint. Ever since the New Acropolis Museum opened, Greece has been putting serious pressure on the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles.

The BM hasn’t been receptive to Greek entreaties, needless to say. Collecting fragments of the frieze scattered about is a great way to keep the situation in the papers and to make the British Museum look like a dick for not being willing to even consider what other countries are doing.

Edit for clarification: The piece is on loan to Greece. It will return to the Palermo museum at the end of the year.

:hattip: commenter Mark Watson

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Early results from the Stonehenge dig

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

The recent Stonehenge dig is already revising historical assumptions. Radiocarbon dating of bluestone fragments indicates that the first ring of stones was erected 300 years later than previously thought.

Until now, the consensus view for the date of the first stone circle was anywhere between 2600BC and 2400BC. [...]

The dig unearthed about 100 pieces of organic material from the original bluestone sockets, now buried under the monument. Of these, 14 were selected to be sent for modern carbon dating, at Oxford University.

The result – 2300BC – is the most reliable date yet for the erection of the first bluestones.

The professors in charge of the excavation, Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright, think this dating supports their theory of Stonehenge as temple of health, a “Neolithic Lourdes”. I’m not sure why, exactly.

The article mentions the “Amesbury Archer” dates to this same time frame. The profs think he dragged his cookies to Stonehenge to get a cure, but even if it we knew for sure he was buried after the bluestones went up (which we don’t, and most likely won’t be able to find out until dating technology gets a lot more specific), I don’t see how we could know his reasons.

Other theories fit the data as well, like the burial ground theory.

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The dying art of pub signs

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

Britain’s pubs are in decline. Many of them are owned by large corporations offering franchise fare and mass-market details. The smallholders are collapsing at a precipitous rate. Fifty-seven pubs close every month.

Their hand painted signs disintegrate with them.

Only the 30 independent pub chains and breweries in Britain are still ordering individually painted signs. The St Austell Brewery in Cornwall has a full-time sign painter and the Donnington Brewery at Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire is hanging painted signs at its 16 tied pubs. Whitbread ran a sign-painting studio in Cheltenham until 1991, but has given up brewing and now runs pub restaurant chains such as Brewers Fayre.

God knows what stamped polymer crap is swinging outside places where once hand-painted lambs and archbishops cavorted on wood and iron. Googling “antique pub signs” turns up a horror show of groomsman gifts and “what to get the frat house that has everything” tat.

The pub or inn sign tradition goes back to Roman times, when a vine around a pole signaled there were victuals to be had inside. Richard II made pub signs compulsory so the official Ale Taster could easily spot his charges, so there must have been an explosion of awesome after 1393.

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New Mozart!

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

A previously unknown piece of music written by Mozart in his hand has turned up in a small library in Nantes. It’s unsigned, but the handwriting has been authenticated by the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg.

Some of the first part of the fragment is in D minor, while the second is in D major and marked “Credo” — a major clue that the work is a sketch for a Mass, which typically includes such a movement, said Robert D. Levin, a professor at Harvard University who is well-known for completing unfinished works by Mozart. [...]

For anyone who wants to try sight-reading the fragment, a bit of detective work is required. Musicians must work out the key signature and clef based on other clues in the music. The tempo is also mysterious. And there is no orchestration.

“It’s a melody sketch, so what’s missing is the harmony and the instrumentation, but you can make sense out of it,” Leisinger said. “The tune is complete.”

This find is also significant because it indicates Mozart had a personal interest in writing church music towards the end of his life. This wasn’t a commissioned work like the Requiem.

The first performance is already expected for January.

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Fake comes for the Archbishop

Friday, September 19th, 2008

In 1990, excavators found a Chi-Ro amulet in a Roman grave in Shepton Mallet in Somerset. The find was explosive: the amulet marked the grave as the earliest Christian burial in Europe, which would redraw the map of the spread of Christianity.

The city of Shepton Mallet named a street and a theater after the amulet. The Archbishop of Canterbury wore a reproduction of it around his neck.

Then people started to actually, you know, study it. The British Museum’s tests at the time were inconclusive. Now the University of Liverpool has tested the amulet with the latest and greatest technology, and declared it a fake. The amulet is not Roman at all.

It’s barely even old. Hell, it looks like a Coke bottle cap someone took a finishing nail and some craft store beads to, although at least one theory suggests actual silversmiths and actual Roman silver were involved.

The amulet is now thought to be a modification of a Roman brooch dug up in Sussex 100 years ago. New technology has allowed experts to analyse the composition of the amulet in more detail than was previously possible. Samples of metal taken from the amulet were analysed by the university which found them to be consistent with silver produced in the 19th century or later.

So it’s a blend of the old and the new, it seems, put together by fakers with nebulous motives.

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