Custer’s last flag for sale

George Armstrong Custer, taken 1860-1869There wasn’t much left of the 7th Cavalry that Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer so boldly and so incompetently led into battle against the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne near the Little Bighorn River in what was then Montana on June 25, 1876. The Lakota and Cheyenne picked the field virtually clean of artifacts and military regalia after their victory.

Three days later, all that remained of the 210 of the troops under Custer’s command were being collected by a burial detail. Sergeant Ferdinand Culbertson found a tattered flag under one of the bodies. It was a silk swallow-tail American flag known as a guidon, and Sgt. Culbertson folded it up and slipped it into his pocket. A few years later he gave it to one Rose Fowler, who eventually moved to Detroit and in 1895 sold it to the Detroit Museum of Art for $54. Here’s a fascinating contemporary write-up (pdf) of the the flag’s history from the March 1895 edition of Detroit Free Press.

The Detroit Museum of Art is now called the Detroit Institute of Arts and they’ve decided to sell the guidon at Sotheby’s this fall. In 1895 the museum was a curio cabinet of sorts, with all kinds of different pieces on display. The Detroit Institute of Arts, however, is exclusively an art museum now and they’re trying to build a world-class art collection in a sluggish economy. As important a historical artifact as this flag is, it’s not on-topic for DIA, and Sotheby’s $2-5 million estimate is the equivalent of 1-2 years of DIA’s acquisition budget. With this one sale, they can at least double, probably triple, and very likely quadruple + the amount they spend purchasing art in a year.

7th Cavalry guidon from the Battle of Little BighornThat estimate is probably a lowball. The last flag of major US history import was a Revolutionary flag captured by the British at the battle of Bedford in 1779. It brought a record price for military relics when it sold for $12.3 million in 2006. Obviously the Little Bighorn flag is a hundred years younger, but Custer’s Last Stand has become such a legendary part of the American story, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the guidon broke the record.

John Doerner, chief historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said he believes the flag is stained with the blood of a fallen soldier and that the banner belongs to the American people.

“It was an act of courage and bravery,” said Doerner, a 20-year veteran of the National Parks Service.

“To lose the colors was really something that a soldier would give their lives [to prevent],” he said.

Doerner is helping oversee events for the battle’s anniversary this weekend at the national monument, where visitors will hear symposiums and view re-enactments. He is hopeful that a benefactor will purchase the flag and loan it to a national museum.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument owns the only other 7th Cavalry guidon to have survived the battle — known as the Keogh guidon — but it’s in very poor condition and is too delicate for permanent display. It was just on public view 5 days ago, in fact, for the anniversary of the battle, but it returned to conservation storage the next day. Here’s hoping the Culbertson guidon manages to find its way into the public patrimony too.

Police bust stolen Caravaggio, art thieves

Ukrainian and German police forces collaborated to bust a ring of international art thieves who were attempting to sell a stolen Caravaggio painting to a German collector in Berlin.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Anatoly Mogylyov said that investigations have linked this gang to 20 other major art thefts in the Ukraine, and 20 suspected members of the gang have been detained there. The ministry is filing for extradition of the alleged thieves arrested in Germany.

The German newspaper said police in Germany detained three Ukrainian nationals and a Russian when they attempted to hand over the painting to the buyer.

The painting was brought to Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century. It was long believed to be a copy of a Caravaggio, but the authenticity of the work was established in 2005 while the canvas was on exhibit in Spain.

Soviet experts had declared it authentic in the 1950’s, but the attribution was still questioned until it went on tour in 2005. It was restored in 2006, although from the looks of it it’s going to need a whole new round of tender loving care after how the thieves manhandled it.

The painting, known as “The Taking of Christ,” or “The Kiss of Judas,” was stolen 2 years ago from the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine. The thieves broke into the museum through a window at night, removed the glass pane shielding the canvas and cut it out of the frame, all without setting off a single alarm. It was major loss to the museum and to the Ukraine. It was their only Caravaggio and the single most valuable painting in the country, worth tens of millions of dollars.

There is another copy of the same painting in Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland. It too is thought to be in Caravaggio’s hand, but it’s hard to say.

'The Kiss of Judas', Caravaggio, 1602

1st c. Thracian chariot excavation on display

Four-wheeled chariot and horses, 1st c. ThracianThe excellently-preserved Thracian chariot found in the village of Karanovo in November 2008 is going on display where it was found. The entire excavation site is part of a new archaeological complex called “The Eastern Mound – Chariot and Tomb of a Thracian Aristocrat from 1st Century AD.”

The four-wheeled wooden chariot, its intricately carved bronze plating and fittings, plus the skeletal remains of two horses and a dog have been preserved in situ instead of being removed to a museum. Thracian chariots were often buried with up to eight horses and their elaborately decorated bridles. The bronze plating features scenes from Thracian mythology, like the god Eros, a jumping panther and a mythological animal with the body of a panther and the tail of a dolphin.

Four wheeled chariots are a very rare find, and this one is particularly notable because of the large diameter of the wheels: 1.2 meters, almost 4 feet. The Thracian nobleman himself was also found buried with his chariot, the animals and some wooden and leather goods thought to be horse harnesses. It’s not clear from the article whether he’s still on site along with the non-human remains, but I doubt it.

The new complex was ceremonially opened by Deputy Culture Minister Todor Chobanov on Saturday, but it seems to have been sponsored by private corporations. I’m not surprised, given that the original dig was granted a total budget of $12,500 from the Bulgarian Culture Ministry.

Looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins getting bad again

Looted Sumerian tomb near DhahirNot that it ever got supergreat. Since the invasion, there hasn’t been anything like sufficient security at the many sites of archaeological importance in Iraq. Coalition forces had been doing some policing, however, and containing the worst of the excesses seen in 2003. That was before the drawdowns began, and although police were supposed to be trained to replace them, the government has not made them a priority. The result is the devastatingly predictable recurrence of looting.

The looting today has not resumed on the scale it did in the years that immediately followed the American invasion in 2003, when looters — tomb raiders, essentially — swarmed over sites across the country, leaving behind moonlike craters where Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Persian cities once stood.

Even so, officials and archaeologists have reported dozens of new excavations over the past year, coinciding with the withdrawal of American troops, who until 2009 conducted joint operations with the Iraqi police in many areas now being struck by looters again. The antiquities police say they do not have the resources even to keep records of reported lootings.

Here in Dhahir, the looting is evident in the shattered bits of civilization — pieces of pottery, glass and carved stone — strewn across an expanse of desert that was once a Sumerian trading town known as Dubrum.

The bowls, vases and other pieces are destroyed and discarded by looters who seek gold, jewelry and cuneiform tablets or cylinders that are easy to smuggle and resell, according to Abdulamir al-Hamdani, a former antiquities inspector in Dhi Qar Province. The nearest city, Farj, is notorious for a black market in looted antiquities, he said.

“For me, for you, it is all priceless,” he said, “but for them it is useless if they can’t sell it in the market.”

Antiquities police headquarters in BaghdadThe antiquities police force was supposed to have over 5,000 troops on the ground by now. They have 106, barely enough to protect the Ottoman mansion that houses their headquarters. The antiquities board, which has a lot more to fund than just the security force, asked for a budget of $16 million this year, but they got $2.5 million.

There’s no money, no personnel, and even when the prime minister himself orders more police on the ground, nothing comes of it. Then there’s the corruption of local government and law enforcement which gives looting operations easy access to archaeological sites. It’s a nightmare, and there’s no awakening in sight.

Harald Bluetooth’s royal palace found in Jutland

After centuries of speculation, Danish archaeologists think they have found the royal palace of 10th century king Harald Bluetooth, famed king, conqueror and Christianizer of Denmark and Norway. (Yes, the wireless technology invented by Swedish company Ericsson is named and logoed after him.)

Excavations in the Jelling complex in southern Jutland have uncovered the remains of 10th century wooden structures. Jelling is the site of several royal burial mounds and of rune-engraved monoliths, one of which is marked with an inscription from Harald dedicating it to Gormr, his father, and Thyrvé, mother. Gormr is considered the first king of Denmark.

Mads Dengsø Jessen, the archaeologist from Århus University who led the dig said four buildings from Harald’s time had been discovered at the site. The buildings are characteristic of those built at round fortresses known as Trelleborg.

‘This tells us that we have uncovered a large complex, and the strict geometrical construction is a typical example of Harald’s work,’ Jessen said.

Archaeologists have yet to identify the remains of Harald’s royal hall, but Jessen believes they can be found under the existing Jelling Church, where the remains of a large wooden building were discovered on a previous dig.

Archaeologists had speculated that the wooden building was a church but because of its location in relation to the newly uncovered longhouses, Dengsø Jessen thinks that it is almost certainly Harald Bluetooth’s royal hall.

The palisaded enclosure around these four buildings is huge. Archaeologists say that it’s six times the size of Amalienborg Palace, the 18th century royal palace complex in Copenhagen.

excavating Jelling