Archive for April, 2010

Ancient Greek building: some assembly required

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Archaeologists excavating in Torre Satriano in the southern Italian region of Basilicata (the arch of the boot) have found a 6th century B.C. Greek building that comes complete with detailed assembly instructions. The building is a highly decorated, luxury structure with a sloping roof that is inscribed with descriptions of how the pieces of it slot together.

Rendering of the roof tiles with rainwater filtersThe roof was designed to filter rainwater down decorative panels, known as cymatiums, with projections designed to protect the wall below from dripping water.

“All the cymatiums and several sections of frieze also have inscriptions relating to the roof assembly system,” explained the Director of Basilicata University’s Archaeology Schoool Massimo Osanna.

“So far, around a hundred inscribed fragments have been recovered, with masculine ordinal numbers on the cymatiums and feminine ones on the friezes”.

The end result is a kind of instruction booklet, with every component identified by its own symbol and, as in modern systems, categorized as masculine or feminine depending on how it fits together with other parts.

So insert tab A into slot B and get yourself a Greek temple kind of thing.

The decorative elements are very similar to those found on a structure in a nearby town. They may have in fact been cast from the same molds. The team thinks that these structures were the result of a local builder taking advantage of the fashion for all things Greek at the time to create expensive build-it-yourself kits.

Greeks had invaded the region a century before then, but they were mainly in the south of Basilicata along the coast. Potenza, which is at a high elevation in the northern part of the region, was still very much on the outskirts of Greater Greece. Local knock-offs would have been both more available and more affordable.


“Eggshell skull” moves from courthouse to museum

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Curator Jan Collins holds the proverbial eggshell skullThe eggshell skull rule is an old standard of English common law that holds that someone who broke the law is liable for all the consequences of that act, even if they’re unpredictable. So if you hit someone on the head who you don’t know has a skull as fragile as an eggshell and he dies, you’re responsible for his death even if you didn’t know of his condition and had no intent to kill him or even harm him.

This rule has been consistently upheld in many a court case and is taught in law school, but I came across a skull today that figured in a case that went the other way entirely.

On Christmas night 1901, gold miner James Roberts had a few drinks at the Dawson Club in what was then a notoriously rowdy part of Colorado Springs. He got into an argument with William Brooks, the bar owner, and when Roberts turned away Brooks took a Colt .45 revolver to the back of his skull. Roberts fell, hitting his head on the stove and then again on the floor.

The evening’s revelers continued to revel around Roberts’ prone body for an hour or so until someone finally thought to call the doctor. It was too late. Roberts had died.

Defense attorney J. Maurice FinnYou would have thought it was an open and shut case, but Brooks bought him some quality justice in the person of J. Maurice Finn, defense attorney to wealthy scalawags the county over, known as the “Oratorical Whirlwind of the West.”

Finn put on a novel defense: that Roberts had a particularly thin skull, therefore Brooks couldn’t have known that 2+ pounds of steel wielded with pistol-whipping force would be the death of him. Finn persuaded the coroner to saw off the top part of Roberts’ skull to use it as evidence of his theory in court.

His flair for drama worked and Brooks was acquitted. Roberts’ body was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Mount Pisgah cemetery, but the top of his skull stayed in the Teller County Courthouse unnoticed for decades.

In 1974 or 1975, former county attorney P.J. Anderson found the skull next to a bag of gold dust. It made the press, mainly because of the gold, but when the gold turned out be worth less than 20 bucks, interest in the skull faded too. A bar named after Finn wanted the skull to toast to, and a judge wanted to use it as an ashtray, but it stayed in storage in the courthouse for a few decades more.

Then came 2009 and Craigslist.

“I had this flat screen TV my wife said I needed to sell,” Anderson said.

He put it on Craigslist and a Teller County Courthouse employee bought it. During the TV transaction, Anderson told the story of James Roberts and his fractured skull.

“I’ve been telling the story for 35 years,” Anderson said.

The employee went in to work and repeated the story of the TV and the skull. Lisa Wheatcraft, a court reporter, knew of the skull and went to look for it and discovered it was gone.

Wheatcraft tracked down the skull to a former courthouse worker who’d taken it home — and who willingly returned it.

Roberts' skull on display at Cripple Creek District MuseumWheatcraft locked the skull in a drawer and after a few months of digging, offered the skull to the [Cripple Creek District Museum]. [Director Jan] Collins took it and went to work confirming Anderson’s history.

Now the skull is on respectful display. Museum workers greet it every morning when they get there and say goodnight when they leave.

No word on whether it’s actually unusually thin, but it looks normal to me.


11 Rembrandt Bugattis for sale

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Eleven sculptures by my latest obsession Rembrandt Bugatti are going on sale in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art sales on May 5th and 6th in New York City. The Bugattis are from the S. Joel Schur Collection, which is wide considered one of the finest, if not the finest, group of Rembrandt Buggati pieces in private hands.

The sculptures include some of Bugatti’s most famous pieces like the Babouin Sacré Hamadryas, the planar, Cubist-style baboon which prefigured the Art Deco and Cubist movement. It is estimated to sell for $2-$3 million.

The lowest estimate is a mere $80,000–$120,000 for Marabout au repos, aka a stork at rest. So whichever one of you is getting me that J.M.W. Turner can throw in the Bugatti stork as a stocking stuffer.

'Grand Giraffe Tête Basse' by Rembrandt Bugatti, ca 1910The one I really want, though, is the Grand Girafe tête basse. It’s 25 1/2″ tall and is just so delicate and lovely.

The graceful giraffe, with its willowy neck arched towards the earth, exemplifies Bugatti’s brilliance at capturing the curvilinear elegance of an animal’s anatomy. The artist was so charmed by the poise of this African mammal that he sculpted it in two variations. The present work, which is the most visually complex of the series, holds the pose that can be seen in the photograph of the artist and his subject at the Antwerp zoo. The present bronze, which is numbered along the back edge of the base, is the sixth of an edition of six works ever to be cast of this sculpture.

The estimate for this one is $900,000-$1,200,000. There’s a bronze Degas ballerina doing an arabesque in this sale that is estimated to sell for less than half of that. There are several Rodins that don’t even come close to Bugatti’s price range.

Obviously I’m not the only person completely enraptured by his artistry and tragic story.

On a side note, some furniture by Rembrandt’s father Carlo Bugatti is going to be in an Art Deco sale at Sotheby’s London a couple of weeks after the Modern Art sale. Here’s a rare 1902 desk and chair set that has a bit of Rembrandt’s connection to the natural world in the bird and plant decoration. It’s also somewhat rococo and about as far from Rembrandt’s elegant simplicity as you can get with its copious tassels and geegaws.

Desk and chair set by Carlo Bugatti, 1902


WWI chemical weapons found in D.C. backyard

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Munitions dig in Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, D.C.It was farmland outside of Washington, D.C. when the Army first buried untold amounts of artillery and chemical weapons there, but what was once an out-of-the-way American University chemical warfare station is now the backyard of a house between the university president’s home and the residence of the South Korean ambassador.

The Army used the university to develop and test munitions during World War I. When the war ended, the Army buried the leftovers in pits and pretty much forgot about it until new homes started being built in the area in 1993.

Since then, the Army Corps of Engineers has done 4 major excavations. Until recently they thought they had found all that needed finding, so they removed an airtight protective structure only to find a whole new pile weapons they didn’t know was there.

The Corps discovered an open flask containing traces of the chemical agent mustard, another blistering agent called lewisite and munition shells with more digging near a one-time Army chemical warfare station at American University.

More recently, protective structures were rebuilt and digging continued. Workers found a larger jar with mustard, glassware that was smoking and fuming, scrap munitions and a shell containing a tear gas agent.

The Army Corps has removed more than 500 pounds of glassware and scrap metal and nearly 750 barrels of soil, some of it contaminated with chemical agents, said spokeswoman Joyce Conant.

“It’s a much larger disposal area than we predicted,” project manager Dan Noble told The Associated Press on Thursday. “The nature of debris is so different, perhaps it’s a different disposal area.”

It’s still federally owned property, which is good because the Army Corps of Engineers has a lot of work to do to secure and clean up the site. Meanwhile, neighbors are justifiably concerned that their drinking water may be contaminated, not to mention that their high property values might not be so high anymore.


Staffordshire Hoard on National Geographic Channel

Friday, April 16th, 2010

This Sunday at 9 PM EST, the National Geographic Channel will broadcast an hour-long documentary about the Staffordshire Hoard called Lost Gold of the Dark Ages.

It’s going to have the usual unhealthy complement of goofy medieval battle recreations, but hopefully there will be plenty of hard facts and, most importantly, some great photography of the hoard itself.

With none of the artefacts bigger than your hand and most considerably smaller, my director of photography Mike Craven Todd has brought with him a set of Dedolights which at 150 watts are powerful enough to light the entire area but can be ‘spotted down’ to a tiny pin prick of light. We’re shooting the show on XD Cam, a blue-ray based camera system, so with the lens fitted with a close up dioptre a large HD video monitor is fired up and we get our first glimpse of the treasure in all its close-up glory.

Everyone present, from the conservators, archaeologists and camera crew the only word that seems to be on everyone’s lips is Wow!

Most of the people that have looked at and handled the artefacts, have only seen them with their naked eye. In macro close-up, they’re seeing new amazing details for the first time. They can see that some of the artefacts are rubbed smooth and worn indicating that they must have already been old when they were placed in the ground almost 1500 years ago. They can see damage that might have occurred when they were being used – perhaps in battle. They can see how well cut, polished and shaped the garnets are – if we need a high tech, high definition camera to see such detail, how on earth did the craftsmen who made them manage to see what they were doing?

The companion website has a cool interactive component which allows you to select from a dozen individual items from the hoard to view close up and from every angle.

This is not specifically related to the Hoard but apparently there will be performers reciting Old English poetry as part of the goofy re-enactments. Here’s a short behind the scenes clip that features a lovely reading of an Old English poem. It’s mellifluous and beautiful and sounds nothing at all like my high school teacher’s hacking attempts at Beowulf.


Grace Kelly’s fashion on display

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

The Victoria & Albert Museum is putting on an exhibit of Grace Kelly as a style icon. Several of her most recognizable gowns from movies like Rear Window and High Society are part of the exhibit, as well as later dresses she wore as Princess of Monaco. In total 40 gowns are on display along with some of her gloves, bags, sun glasses and jewelry, so basically the full gamut of the glamorous 50s woman.

The exhibit is divided, much like Gaul, into 3 parts: Actress, Bride and Princess. Most of the clothing comes from her films, however.

It sounds like every small girl’s clichéd dream. Yet there is a steely minimalism about many of Kelly’s costumes, and her modus operandi, that brings respect. Her slim pale-green gown, which she wore to receive her Oscar for The Country Girl, is there, under a matching satin evening coat. She wore the same dress for the premiere, and on the cover of Life magazine, an economy that would horrify the 21st-century actress.

Black organza dress from Rear WindowFast was never a word that applied to Kelly. She was the un-Marilyn, the other blonde, who appeared to have less fun while getting away with a great deal under her patrician exterior. At a thin 5ft 7in, she contrasted with the va-va-voom Hollywood hourglass. A cream lace dress by Oleg Cassini (a favourite of Jackie Kennedy and a boyfriend of Kelly) shows that the actress had a 21in waist, according to the exhibition’s curator, Jenny Lister.

Next is the little black frock from Rear Window. Hitchcock fans will recognise the pleated silk organza number, with translucent cap sleeves, that pops up, darkly, “at the pivotal point in Rear Window when Kelly starts to believe they are watching a murderer”, Lister says.

I love that little black dress. (I have a thing for pleats, especially really teeny organza ones.) My favorite, though, is the gown she wore during the drunk scene in High Society. I love the embroidery but mainly I just really love that movie.

High Society gown on display at the Victoria & Albert Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra in High Society


1913 silent movie about Lincoln found in a barn

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Francis Ford as Abraham Lincoln in 'When Lincoln Paid'Contractor Peter Massie was cleaning out an old barn in New Hampshire destined for demolition when he found a complete set of reels of the long-lost 1913 picture When Lincoln Paid, starring Francis Ford, director John Ford’s brother, as Abraham Lincoln. He also found the original projector for the nitrate film.

Massie brought the whole kit-n-kaboodle home and kept it in the basement for a while until it occurred to him to contact Keene State College for help with preservation. The college contacted the George Eastman House film preservation museum in Rochester, N.Y., and found out that this copy is the only one known.

Nitrate films from the dawn of cinema have not survived well, so a great many pioneering films we only know about today from contemporary descriptions or the occasional clip. They have a distressing propensity to burst into flames, for one thing, and they need careful conservation to last.

This film has endured a century thanks to New Hampshire’s horrendously cold, long winters, and thanks to the shade-casting trees around the barn. Even so, the film has shrunk over the years and the sprocket holes that used to guide it through the projector are torn through.

The National Film Preservation Foundation gave Keene State a grant to restore the picture. They sent it to a lab in Colorado, and it took them a year to put humpty dumpty back together.

“What the laboratory had to do was remanufacture the sprocket holes to a new dimension, make it in strips, adhere it to the image, and then run it through a printing process where they would print it, frame by frame,” [Keene State College film professor Larry] Benaquist said.

Benaquist thinks the film was discovered in Nelson because the town is on Granite Lake, the site of many summer camps through the years. He said there was a boys’ camp in the area of the barn and believes the films were shown to entertain the children, then put away and forgotten.

Helping the restoration was Mark Reinhart of Columbus, Ohio, author of “Abraham Lincoln on Screen.” He had a crude video copy of the film that had been made from an 8-mm copy and included a few scenes that were missing from the film found in the barn. The college combined a DVD of the restored film with a DVD taken of Reinhart’s film for its final version.

The college plans to screen the picture in the Putnam Theater in the Redfern Arts Center on Tuesday, April 20, at 4 p.m.. Attendance is free, so if you’re in the New Hampshire area, here’s your chance to watch a movie that hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years.

You can see a clip of a climactic scene below where Mrs. Wade, the mother of a dead Union soldier asks Lincoln to pardon the Confederate soldier she once turned in.

Mrs. Wade pleads with Abraham Lincoln (played by Francis Ford) for the life of a young Confederate soldier in Francis Ford’s When Lincoln Paid.


Roman-era mummy found at Egyptian oasis

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Roman era mummy found at Bahariya OasisArchaeologists excavating Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis, 185 miles southwest of Cairo, have uncovered 14 Greco-Roman tombs dating to the 3rd century B.C. In one of them they found an intricately-carved gypsum sarcophagus in the shape of a woman dressed in Roman robes. Preliminary investigations indicate there is a mummy still inside.

The sarcophagus hasn’t been dated yet, but the burial style suggests she’s from the Roman era which started in 31 B.C. and continued for a few hundred years after that. At first archaeologists weren’t sure if it’s a woman or a girl mummy because the sarcophagus is so tiny, only 38 inches long. The decoration and features suggest an adult, however, so she was probably a small but grown woman.

There’s no writing that names who she was, but judging from the quality of the sarcophagus and the other artifacts found in the tomb she was definitely a wealthy, prominent person.

Gold relief of four sons of HorusThey also found four anthropoid masks made of plaster, a collection of coins, clay and glass vessels of different shapes and sizes, and a sheet of gold depicting Imsety, Duamutef, Hapi and Qebehsenuef — the four sons of the ancient Egyptian sky god Horus.

According to [Mahmoud Affifi, director of Cairo and Giza antiquities], the tombs have a unique interior design. They consist of a long stairway leading to a corridor which ends in a hall. Each corner of the hall contains mastabas (rectangular structures found above many Egyptian tombs) that were used in burning the deceased.

This isn’t the first time extraordinary finds have been made in Bahariya Oasis. In 1996, Zahi Hawass uncovered 17 tombs with 254 golden masked mummies, hence its being known as the Valley of the Golden Mummies. There’s a lot more to be found, too. Experts think there may be as many as 10,000 mummies buried in the oasis, making it the largest Egyptian cemetery ever uncovered.


UK to sell Symes’ looted antiquities to pay tax bill

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Robin Symes was once a very rich art and antiquities dealer who had houses all over the continent and chauffeur-driven Bentleys. He sold multi-million dollar pieces to major museums and private collectors, many of which turn out to have been looted. Among his sources was the notorious Giacomo Medici, currently appealing his 10-year prison sentence for smuggling stolen antiquities. Among his buyers was former Getty curator Marion True, currently on trial for acquiring said stolen antiquities.

His beautiful house of cards came falling down in 1999 when his personal and professional partner of almost 30 years, Christo Michaelides, fell on the stairs, hit his head on the radiator and died. Michaelides’ heirs expected to inherit 50% of Symes’ business, but Symes, in a truly scuzzy dick move, claimed that Christo had been employee, not a partner, so he owed the family nothing. The family was not happy. The family is also hugely wealthy (shipping fortune, like Onassis). The family sued. The family won. Symes went bankrupt and spent 2 years in prison for contempt of court for repeatedly lying about his assets. Read more about the whole sordid story in this excellent article.

Bonhams in London was forced to withdraw a Robin Symes lot from its sale of the Geddes Collection in October of 2008 when the Italian government claimed ownership. In fall of 2009, Bonhams held an art sale of Symes’ collection, but it was all contemporary pieces because any antiquities Symes touched are disputed due to his long history of illegally exporting and selling looted antiques.

You’d think the Home Office would therefore avoid all of Symes’ filthy (sometimes literally; many of the artifacts still have dirt encrustations proving they were recently torn from the ground) lucre, but instead it has chosen to take a radical 180 degree turn and force the sale of 1,000 antiques from Symes’ vast collection. The government has a big ol’ tax bill to recoup, after all, and Symes has no money left, just thousands of looted antiquities.

In documents seen by the Observer, Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the relevant prosecutor in Rome, has repeatedly asked Britain to return the Symes antiquities to their “rightful owner”. The UK government has caused fury by stating that the antiquities could instead be bought.

Symes’s collection includes objects dating back 3,000 years, which Rome says form a vital part of Italian heritage. Ferri said: “It’s like the Italian government making a profit from the mafia selling drugs.”

Renfrew said: “These illicitly exported objects are being sold to pay Robin Symes’s debts, which means that they are being sold for the benefit of the British government. This does reflect unfavourably on the British Treasury and Revenue and Customs, as they are encouraging the sale of material that the Italians say is looted.

“Many of the antiquities are Etruscan and could only have been found in Italy. They left Italy illegally because they would require an export licence. I can’t see how the Home Office can dispute that.”

One of the items up for sale is a fragment from a vase the Getty was recently, um, persuaded to return to Italy because it was looted. How shameless can you get?

The estimates are insanely low, too, because it’s a liquidation sale. The expected income from the sale of 1,000 rare antiquities is a meager £100,000 ($155,000). Symes, shady sumbitch that he is, squirreled away his stash of antiquities in over 30 warehouses, selling them on the quiet during his legal troubles, selling them loud and proud to museums and collectors worldwide before then. According to Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini’s outstanding book The Medici Conspiracy, Symes kept 17,000 objects worth an estimated £125 million ($210 million) in those warehouses. So you see that £100,000 figure is a joke.

The Home Office has so far dragged its feet in responding to Italian requests for legal records on the antiquities’ arrival in Britain. By international law, these records should be provided before any sale, but instead the government is pulling one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s favorite tricks and asking for proof that the artifacts were stolen.

Neither the liquidator nor the Home Office will comment publicly. There’s not even a set date for the sale yet. Here’s hoping the stink Italy is raising now will prevent it from happening at all.

Etruscan bronze mask of river god Acheloos from Symes collection


Garner Museum theft solved: It was Monty Burns!

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

'The Concert' by Johannes Vermeer, 1658-1660I sometimes wonder why I still watch The Simpsons, a full decade after it stopped being any good at all, but a couple of times this season there’s been a pale, blurry shadow of a reminder of its former glory. Tonight’s episode we saw Monty Burns getting busted for having commissioned the infamous 1990 art thefts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Vermeer’s The Concert features prominently, one of only 36 known Vermeers in the world, as does Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, the only known seascape Rembrandt ever made. They were stolen from the Gardner along with 11 other Renaissance and Impressions masterpieces, plus two rare artifacts. The total value of the stolen pieces was estimated at $500 million. If they were put on the market now, even that staggering figure would likely be rapidly eclipsed.

On the night of March 18, 1990, men dressed like police officers argued their way in the door, handcuffed the night security guards and made off with 3 Rembrandts (and a Flinck that had been attributed to Rembrandt), the Vermeer, five Degas gouaches, a Manet, a 3200-year-old Chinese bronze vessel and a Napoleonic eagle finial.

It’s the largest art theft in history. Despite the $5 million reward for information leading to the retrieval of the pieces in good condition, the case remains unsolved. UNTIL NOW THAT IS.

There’s no clip online yet, but you can catch whole episodes on the Fox website. Keep your eye open for the episode called “American History X-Cellent” to see Homer’s thoughts on Vermeer’s beautiful symmetry and his shameful treatment of Rembrandt.






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