Archive for October, 2009

Nineteenth century armory for sale

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Glens Falls State Armory, postcard, 1907New York State put the Glens Falls Armory up for auction today. The minimum bid for these 38,000 square feet of turreted awesomeness is $500,000.

The armory was built in Romanesque Revival style by state architect Isaac Perry in 1894.

The outside of the three story building is brick, slate and metal; inside it is timber construction. The corner tower is 65 feet high with a battlemented parapet. When built, the Drill Hall, located on the first floor, had gas lights. The Mezzanine Floor consists of a wooden locker-room, built at the turn of the century. There are also offices throughout the facility. The Drill Hall, where soldiers gather for formations, has also been used for public functions.

Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? That’s intentional. According to Michael Aikey, director of the New York State Military Museum, these ponderous structures were built intentionally to convey state power. At the turn of the century, there was a lot of civil unrest. Lots of labour strife, lots of packed tenements, a few very rich people, lots of very poor people. President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, just 6 years after the Glens Falls Armory opened its doors.

2ndfloorbrshowerNow the National Guard does more overseas than in the state, and National Guard units are leaving old timey armories and moving to “readiness centers”. The Glens Falls unit is moving to a suburban industrial park. Boring, but the bathrooms will probably work a lot better.

Like many other New York state armories, the Glens Falls Armory is on the National Register of Historic Places, but that places no limits on what sort of renovations get done*. As charming as the building is, it’s also a huge labyrinthine collection of crappy acoustic tile drop ceilings and linoleum corridors.

Whoever buys it is going to have to invest major money into converting it to some other use. Other decommissioned armories have been converted into community centers, antiquities markets, science museums, even caterers.

Susan and Manfred Phemister spent hundreds of thousands of dollars converting an 1890s armory into their personal home, a bed and breakfast and a meeting venue. They bought it off of eBay, believe it or not, and are now putting it up for sale for almost twice what they paid for it.

I’ve waited all day for the results of the Glens Falls Armory auction, but so far no news on how much it went for. I’ll update when I hear.

UPDATE: John Warren of the New York History blog reports that nobody bid on the armory. I know it’s a lot to take on, especially in this economic climate, but I hope it finds a loving new owner soon.

More pics here (pdf).

The inside of the third floor turret Stairwell ceiling, second floor

* I originally said that being on the register would limit the renovation options to ensure the building remains in keeping with its historical nature, but Brad pointed out in the comments that this is not in fact the case. Sadly, the National Register “no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition of private property.” :(


More on the Roman cameo glass vase

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

The Antiquities Trade Gazette has an article on the Roman cameo glass vase that offers a few more details on its history. It’s all a little nebulous and should be taken with a grain of salt given the magazine’s pro-trade perspective, but I dutifully report nonetheless.

First of all, the primary source is Richard Falkiner, a coin expert, antiquities vetter and a correspondent for the Antiquities Trade Gazette. He’s also described in the article as an “antiquities consultant” to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and to Bonhams. He has had the opportunity to inspect the vase in person at Bonhams.

The vase is thought to have resided in a private European collection for some time. The collector is a long-term client of Bonhams.

Mr Falkiner, a long-standing vetter of antiquities at the Grosvenor House fair, told ATG: “As far as I can see, the repairs make it look as though it has been out of the ground since at least the 18th century, possibly the 16th.”

Bonhams say that, in co-operation with leading experts in the field and with the present owner of the vase, they will be carrying out detailed research over the coming months into the historical background of the vase and its miraculous survival, as well as into its more recent history and chain of ownership.

Okaaay… So in other words, they have nothing concrete at all. I sure would love to know who this long-term client of Bonhams is and why he hasn’t been able to provide a verifiable ownership history of the piece. At the very least he should know who he got it from, no? How about just the length of time he’s actually owned it? Instead all we get is “private collection” and “for some time.”

Now, Falkiner has extensive experience in vetting antiquities, for sure. He’s a bit of a jack of all trades, as many experts who work for auctioneers, dealers and collectors have to be. In fact, he spotted one of the Greenhalgh family’s cuneiform fakes at Bonhams in 2006 after the British Museum had given the blatant fraud its seal of approval.

He’s not exactly a disinterested observer either, though. He contracts for Bonhams, he’s a vocal defender of the antiquities trade, his expertise is general — primarily in numismatics — and he hasn’t done any scientific analysis of the vase, just sort of given it a once over.

To sum up, the circumstances remain shady. Your trusty neighborhood cynic will stay on the story.


Joyner’s uncles pardoned 94 years after execution

Monday, October 19th, 2009

In the second series of African American Lives, Henry Louis Gates found that radio host Tom Joyner’s maternal great uncles had been executed in South Carolina in 1915. They were convicted of murdering 73-year-old John Q. Lewis, a white Confederate veteran. Not surprisingly, the trial was a total sham.

The first suspect and main prosecution witness, John “Monk” Stevenson, was found with Lewis’ knife and he told police where to find Lewis’ missing watch. Stevenson later admitted that he had accused Tom and Meeks Griffin because since they owned land, they’d be able to afford a decent defense.

They had to sell their 130 acres of land to afford a lawyer, and then were given a mere day to prepare their defense against capital murder charges.

Even after their trial, white members of the community came to their defense. Magistrates, business leaders, former sheriffs and the mayor of their town all signed a petition to the governor asking him to commute their sentence. Even the judge who heard their case signed it, adding, “I heard this case and I don’t think I could have given a verdict of guilty.”

But then-governor Richard Manning allowed the sentence to stand and the Griffin brothers were executed in the state’s electric chair on September 29, 1915.

Stevenson got a life sentence for throwing the Griffins and two other men under the bus.

Joyner had never heard of his great uncles before Gates told him about them. His family left South Carolina after the execution, and never looked back. Once he heard the story, he decided to work for a posthumous pardon, something that has never been granted in a capital case.

Until now
. On Wednesday, South Carolina’s Parole and Pardons board unanimously voted to pardon Thomas and Meeks Griffin.

Here’s the first part of the segment of African American Lives 2 where Joyner hears about his great uncles. I couldn’t find the rest of it online, I’m afraid. You can find a summary of Gates’ findings on Joyner’s geneology here.



Neues Museum reopens in Berlin after 70 years

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Limestone and stucco bust of NefertitiThe Neues Museum in Berlin was the star museum of Germany, the abode of masterpieces like the iconic limestone bust of Nefertiti and the Helios colossus from late Roman Egypt. It was closed in 1939 and all its valuables put into storage in anticipation of inevitable war damage.

That was a wise move, because the central staircase was bombed in November of 1943, and the northwest and southwest wings and the southeast facade were damaged by allied bombs in February of 1945.

After that, the Neues found itself in East Berlin where it was left to decay until 1986. Some reconstruction occurred between 1986 and German reunification in 1990, but then it was halted again until full renovation and reconstruction began under English architect David Chipperfield in 1997.

On Friday, the decade plus of work finally paid off. The Neues is open again, and Nefertiti has her own room all to herself. Another 9,000 artifacts will be housed in the Neues, ranging from the Stone Age to barbed wire from the Berlin Wall.

And the neoclassical architecture, recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, has been lent a modernist touch by British architect David Chipperfield. His painstaking €233-million ($347 million) revamp has sparked controversy by leaving some of the historic decay untouched. White modern stairways sweep past old bricks pocked by bullets in World War II, original columns still have fire damage and neo-classical mosaics and pseudo-Egyptian murals still seem to flake away on ceilings and walls.

That’s not the only source of controversy. Chipperfield removed some of the damaged structures, including the remnants of the one once-famous Egyptian courtyard. German groups have signed petitions and tried to add the museum to the UNESCO World Heritage Site to stop what they saw as cultural destruction.

Then there’s the controversy over Nefertiti herself, exported under shady circumstances in 1913. Zahi Hawass wants her back, but now that she’s the star of her own gallery at the shiny new museum, I doubt that’s likely.

Neues central stairway after November 1943 bombings Neues central stairway today


Napoleon’s ass was here

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Napoleon sat in this chairA chair which hosted the butt of a certain Napoleon Bonaparte the night before the Battle of Waterloo is up for auction this weekend. It’s expected to go for £15,000 ($24,500) or so.

Napoleon stayed that night with the Cambier family in Courcelles in Belgium, 22 miles from the battlefield. The daughter, Pauline Cambier, took good care of the chair, always mindful of the famous ass that once plonked upon it.

Featuring eight stretcher rungs, a rush seat and seven spindles, plus decorative features, it is at odds with the grandeur of the self-styled Emperor who sat on it.

It has had several owners and now is to be sold at auction and collectors from around Europe are expected to bid on it.

The chair dates to the late 18th or early 19th century. It has some wormwood holes and some age wear but it’s still in good condition, even good enough to sit in should you wish to sit in the buttprints of the great little man.

Napoleon memorabilia is a hot ticket, especially on the continent, and given this piece’s strong provenance and connection to his final downfall (now a metaphor for everyone’s final downfall), it’s bound to make a mint.

International Autograph Auctions, the same auction house that is selling the chair, is also running an autograph auction this weekend. Just as an interesting comparison, I checked out their Napoleon-era offerings, and it turns out that in the long term, to the victor do not necessarily go the spoils.

The Duke of Wellington’s handsome autograph goes for £150-200 ($245-$327), whereas Napoleon’s chicken scratch initials run £600-900 ($981-$1472).

Wellington autograph Napoleon autograph


CSI Leonardo

Friday, October 16th, 2009

An unsigned chalk, ink and pencil portrait of a Renaissance beauty known as “La Bella Principessa” (the beautiful princess) has been attributed to Leonardo using a method more commonly associated with police procedural dramas: fingerprint analysis.

Forensic expert Peter Paul Biro found the fingerprint and partial palm print on the canvas and matched it to a fingerprint found on Leonardo’s “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” in the Vatican.

Biro examined multispectral images of the drawing taken by the Lumiere Technology laboratory in Paris, which used a special digital scanner to show successive layers of the work.

Closeup of Leonardo's fingerprint on the drawing“Leonardo used his hands liberally and frequently as part of his painting technique. His fingerprints are found on many of his works,” Biro said. “I was able to make use of multispectral images to make a little smudge a very readable fingerprint.”

Alessandro Vezzosi, director of a museum dedicated to Leonardo in the artist’s hometown of Vinci, Italy, said Wednesday he was “very happy” to hear about the fingerprint analysis, saying it confirmed his own conclusion that the portrait can be attributed to Leonardo with “reasonable certainty.”

This is great news for the Swiss collector who owns the piece. He bought it for a ridiculously low sum last year when Christie’s sold it as an anonymous 19th c. German school piece.

If the attribution holds, this will be the first new Leonardo to be discovered in over a hundred years. It could be valued at something in the neighborhood of $150 million. Bought for $19,000, sold for $150 million. I doubt there’s ever been a better return on investment in the art world.

Needless to say, Kate Ganz, the New York art dealer who bought the portrait in 1998 for around the amount she sold it to the Swiss collector for 9 years later, insists that this new information doesn’t change anything. As far as she’s concerned, it’s absolutely not a Leonardo la la la I can’t hear you.

I can’t say I blame her for sticking her head in the sand. How do you sleep at night after having had something so beautiful, so precious in your hands for a decade unrecognized, only to give it away at cost?


Ancient footprints under the Lod mosaic

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

The huge and beautiful Lod mosaic was removed for conservation. Underneath, archaeologists have found multiple footprints left behind by the workers who prepared the bedding for the mosaic together 1700 years ago.

Some of them are of bare feet, some of them shod, and there are a variety of sizes: 34, 37, 42 and 44 European which are men’s sizes 3, 5, 8 1/2 and 10 1/2 in American measurements. (Granted people were smaller then, but size 3? That has to have been a kid, right?)

“Based on the concentration of foot and sandal prints it seems that the group of builders tamped the mortar in place with their feet,” [Jacques Neguer, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority Art Conservation department] said. “The mosaic consists of three parts that different artists built, probably in different periods.”

He said that there were different kinds of art on the mosaic, and that the conservators could see that the hands that affixed the tesserae were different: a trained eye also recognizes that the preparation which was done prior to the work is different.

Neguer says that part of the process of conservation is to clean the bedding after the mosaic has been removed and study how it was put together. Sometimes they find sketches or grid lines the artists scratched into the plaster so they could plan where the tesserae were going.

That’s what happened under the Lod mosaic. They found incised lines under a vine segment (the middle rectangle in the picture on the right) indicating where the tiles were to be laid, and on that same layer they found the group of footprints.

This was a major lucky break on their part because even with the greatest of skilled conservators, sometimes the mosaic can’t be lifted so cleanly off its bedding.

The prints will be removed for conservation as well, and will eventually be displayed in the new facility built to display the mosaic itself.

What a rush for the conservators to literally be able to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.


Only complete Roman cameo glass vase found

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Bonham’s has announced that they’ve received a uniquely complete and intricate Roman cameo glass vase.

Complete Roman cameo glass vaseRoman cameo glass is extremely rare — there are only 15 known pieces — and the previous top-of-the-line item was the beautiful Portland vase which is missing its base and has only 7 carved figures on the surface. This complete vase has 30 figures.

It dates from somewhere between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., and stands a dramatic 13 inches (33.5 cm) high.

This type of vase is formed from two layers of cobalt blue glass with a layer of white on top which is cut down after cooling to create the cameo-style decoration.

A spokesman added: “Items of this kind were produced, it is thought, within a period of only two generations. […]

The recently identified vase is also said to be more complex than others of its kind Bonhams experts believe that this magnificent artefact could rewrite the history books on cameo vases.

Unlike the Portland vase, it still has its base and lower register and will therefore add significantly to the archaeological understanding of these vessels.

It’s not for sale. Yet. The owner is a “private European collector” who is currently passing it around various museums and experts for further study.

Giant red flag right there. Something’s not kosher about this, most likely a little something called loot. A piece of this stature doesn’t come out of nowhere. If it had been in any known collections, even private ones, somebody would have documented it. For it to surface now with no history of ownership … Well, it doesn’t bode well.

It could be perfectly legitimate. It could have been kept a secret in some reclusive millionaire’s castle for hundreds of years. It’s just that those kinds of stories tend to spring from the pages of novels rather than newspapers.

For Bonham’s to have been allowed to publicize it suggests they’re priming the market for a major sale. In this day and age, the old “anonymous private collector” shtick might not fly, especially not with such an extraordinary piece.


Abraham Lincoln and New York

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Matthew Brady Cooper Union portraitThe New York Historical Society is putting on a fascinating exhibit about Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with New York. From his first campaign until his assassination, New York loomed large for Lincoln.

Its 35 electoral votes were key to his first victory, and the picture Matthew Brady took of him after his famous Cooper Union address in 1860 played a major role in changing his rail-splitter prairie hick image into the dignified statesman image that we see him as today.

New York was also a whole different kind of battlefield during the war. It was the Union’s primary provider of soldiers, money, media. Abolitionism was strong in the state and well-represented politically, but so was some truly heinous racism. The 1863 Draft Riots went on for 4 days and caused more death and destruction than anything besides the war itself.

Lincoln’s supporters formed an organization, the Wide Awakes, with its own paramilitary uniforms and songs. In 1860 30,000 Wide Awakes marched in a five-hour torchlight parade through New York City streets; one of their torches, amazingly, is on display here. But the same number of marchers gathered in 1863 for a demonstration against Lincoln and his policies.

This exhibition steers deftly in these churning waters, pointing out that even allies had differing shades of opinion. Lincoln’s advocates became known as the Loyalists and are portrayed in an image as if seated at an upper-crust dining room table, paying homage to a strong central Union. […]

There is less complexity here in the portrait of the Democratic Copperheads, who are shown at a tavern, perhaps because one of their leaders, Fernando Wood, was a bar owner before he became mayor of New York. But the Copperheads also included wealthy merchants who saw their fortunes threatened by the end of trade with the South, as well as ardent defenders of slavery, like Samuel F. B. Morse.

One of the most fascinating artifacts here is a book Lincoln owned of satirical limericks attacking these opponents. (“There once was a Copperhead vile…”) A touch screen allows you to read every page.

For those of us who aren’t going to be in New York between Friday and March 25th, the exhibition website is nicely set up, with lots of pictures of detailed explanations.

Examples of artifacts from the Draft Riots:

Draft wheel, 1863 Avoid the draft by beating a black man, Draft Riot cartoon, 1863

One of many examples of racist anti-abolitionist propaganda, this one of the “look what’ll happen if Lincoln and the abolitionists have their way” school:

Miscegenation, or The Millennium of Abolitionism, 1864


Mary Rose artifacts on display for the first time

Monday, October 12th, 2009

The Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s favorite ship. It was the first ship that could fire a full cannon broadside and although it’s small by today’s standards at 126 feet (38.5 meters) in length, it was the largest ship in the Tudor fleet.

Mary Rose on display in Portsmouth's historic dockyardIt sank off the coast of Plymouth in July 1545 before Henry’s very eyes. Nobody knows exactly why, although of course everyone’s got a theory. Five hundred hands went down with her, along with a huge amount of treasure and every day Tudoriana. Only 35 men survived, the ones in the rigging above the deck when the ship went down.

The wreck was pulled out of the ocean in 1982, and since then has been on display upright in a dry dock at very low temperature and very high humidity of 95% in the Mary Rose Ship Hall in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Until September 20th you could go see it, but the hall is closed now as they begin to build a new $55 million museum that will suit the particular needs of the wreck and its 19,000 artifacts.

The museum will reflect the original ship’s structure with Nelson’s HMS Victory, docked alongside.

It [the Mary Rose] will continue to be sprayed with preserving polyethylene glycol – a water-based wax solution – until 2011 and then it will be carefully “baked dry” into 2012, when the new museum is due to open in time for the Olympics.

The Mary Rose will be on display in the new museum protected behind glass barriers while the conservation work is completed. The glass is set to be removed in 2016.

The 19,000 artifacts have been in temperature-controlled storage, mainly, with only a few displayed at various times. As part of a fundraising push to get the last $6 million needed for the museum, the Mary Rose Trust has allowed more artifacts than ever before to be filmed.

And what an amazing grouping it is. It includes everyday items like 70 nit combs, some with dead nits still in them, the oldest known fiddle, beer tankards, shoes, boots, stylish manpurses, manicure sets, and this seriously scary metal syringe sailors used for injecting mercury into their urethrae as a cure for syphilis.

Mercury! Injected into your peehole! Spyhilis must have been truly heinous for people to embrace such a cure. Here’s the syringe in question accompanied by two packets of field bandages:

Mercury syringe and field bandages

It’s remarkable how many easily perishable items like those bandages were found on the wreck. Here are some Tudor sailor accessories:

Sailor's kit, aka, a manpurse A sailor's boot Sailors' shoes

Here are some personal grooming effects:

Over 70 nit combs A nit comb with dead nits still in the tines A manicure set

Then there’s the tankard in which a sailor would receive his daily ration of beer, which may sound a little weird to us today, but the beer was likely weak enough not to dehydrate and was certainly less teeming with pathogens than any water they could have carried on board.

Wooden beer tankard

To find out how you can help preserve this incredible slice of Tudor life in a proper museum deserving of its awesomeness, see the Mary Rose Trust website.

They’ve got a neat initiative asking for 500 individuals, schools, businesses and organisations to become the Mary Rose’s “new crew”. Each crew member pledges to raise £500 (ca. $790) towards a £250,000 goal, all of which goes to the new museum.






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