Boy George returns stolen icon to Cyprus

Screen cap of icon in Boy George house on Dutch TVIn 1985, at the peak of Culture Club’s fame, singer Boy George bought a gold-leafed Greek Orthodox icon of Jesus Christ Pantokrator. It hung in his home for almost 26 years. Then one fateful day a camera crew from a Dutch TV show filmed him puttering about in his north London mansion and Bishop Porfyrios, the Cyprus Orthodox Church’s representative to the EU in Brussels, just happened to be watching. In the background, hanging against the wall of a room that serves as George’s closet, he caught a glimpse of the icon.

The Bishop investigated further and found that it was indeed Cypriot in origin, that an icon of Jesus Christ Pantokrator just like that one had been looted from the Church of St. Charalambous in Neo Chorio, near Kithrea in northern Cyprus, in the chaos of the Turkish invasion in 1974. Many Cypriot artifacts were stolen then (and continue to be stolen now, for that matter), winding up in antiques shops all over Europe where dealers ask no questions but probably tell a lot of lies to whales like Boy George.

Bishop Porfyrios confirmed with the priest at St. Charalambous that the icon was indeed the 300-year-old Christ Pantokrator that had been stolen from the church 36 years before, then contacted Boy George to tell him about the piece’s true history. Boy George promptly offered to return it and on Wednesday he did so, officially handing the icon to the Bishop at the Cypriot church of Saint Anagyre, near his house.

Boy George – real name George O’Dowd – said he was “happy the icon is going back to its original rightful home”.

“I have always been a friend of Cyprus and have looked after the icon for 26 years,” he added.

“I look forward to seeing the icon on display in Cyprus for the moment and finally to the Church of St Charalambos from where it was illegally stolen.”

To thank him for his decentness, the committee of Saint Anagyre will invite Boy George and his family to be the guest of honor at the church’s name day celebration on July 1st. Composer and friend John Themis will also be invited, as he helped impress upon the singer the cultural importance of the icon to the Church of Cyprus.

From the left: Church functionary holds icon, Bishop Porfyrios, Boy George, John Themis holds a contemporary painting, gift from Church of Cyprus

Stolen Civil War revolver found after 35 years

.36 caliber Spiller and Burr Civil War revolverA Confederate-issue .36 caliber Spiller and Burr revolver was stolen from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond by person or persons unknown in 1975. Owned by General George Washington Rains — a former West Point professor and munitions expert who along with his older brother Gabriel provided much of the CSA’s gunpowder, landmines and explosives — during the Civil War, the gun was one of the museum’s most treasured objects.

“This is one of the very first and one of the only Confederate manufactured handguns,” said Museum of the Confederacy Collections Manager Catherine Wright.

Wright says only 1,450 of the guns were made. That is one reason why the museum called the FBI when the gun, with an estimated value of $50,000, disappeared from the collection in 1975. Wright says the gun was stolen when the museum collection was moved out of the White House of the Confederacy and into a new museum building.

“It may have been a casualty of some sort of opportunistic thief who saw a loose case or a door which may have been standing ajar. The security measures were lax in those days,” said Wright.

Apparently the revolver disappeared into the dark underworld of antiquities collecting, because no sign of it was found for 35 years. This past December, a woman in Knoxville, Tennessee, found the revolver while going through her father’s things after his death. She brought the gun to an antique dealer in Ohio hoping to sell it, but the dealer looked it up in a Confederate firearms book and traced it to the Museum of the Confederacy.

The woman won’t be charged with attempting to fence stolen property. Neither she nor anyone else knows how the weapon got into her father’s collection. He never lived in Richmond and he could have acquired the piece at any point during the past four decades.

The revolver will go back on display at the Richmond museum for the first time in 35 years next month. For more about the downright fascinating Rains brothers, read this article: The Confederacy’s Bomb Brothers by Peggy Robbins.

Burma king’s gold letter deciphered after 250 years

In 1756, King Alaungphaya of Burma sent a letter to King George II of Britain. Written in Burmese script, the letter was engraved on a gold sheet and decorated with 24 rubies then encased in an elephant tusk for delivery, but despite its designed-to-impress packaging, nobody at King George’s court could read the language so in 1758 George forwarded it to the Royal Public Library (formerly the private collection of the Dukes of Hanover, then their official government library, then once the elector of Hanover became King of England, styled the Royal Public Library) in his hometown of Hanover, Germany, for archiving.

The letter remained in a vault in Hanover for 250 years, mainly unremarked although Danish King Christian VII saw it in 1768. It would have been better he hadn’t because he damaged it in handling making the text even harder to decipher.

Gold letter by Burmese King Alaungphaya to the English King George II, 1756, at Leibniz LibraryThree years ago historians at what is today known as the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library, after the famous mathematician and philosopher who was also its head librarian between 1676 and 1716, revived the long-dormant golden letter and set about finally deciphering it.

Amid the valuable gems and flowery language, King Alaungphaya confirms his permission for a harbour to be built in the city of Pathein to encourage trading co-operation between the two countries. Written in Burmese script, it is addressed to “the most meritorious and supreme [king] master of all the parasol-bearing kings … lord of ruby, gold, silver, copper, iron, amber and precious stone mines, lord of white elephants, red elephants and elephants of various colours”.

It goes on to convey “kindest greetings to the English king who rules over the English capital”.

The letter, which was contained in an elephant tusk, referred to the presence in Burma of Henry Brooke, a British envoy working for the British East India Company who was in charge of the settlement in Pathein.

It went on: “Following the humble request of your esteemed Highness’ envoy, Mr Henry Brooke, We have granted the site for your ships in Pathein at the place he wanted.

“A sealed royal order was sent to the officer of the English king and the governor of Pathein was instructed to measure and hand over [the piece of land] in Pathein.

“When close friendship prevails between kings of different countries, they can be helpful to the needs of each other that we are eager to fulfil.”

First let’s just state for the record that “lord of white elephants, red elephants and elephants of various colours” is a truly outstanding honorific. Having said that, it’s clear that King Alaungphaya was eager to curry favor with the British King. He was the founder of a new royal dynasty — the Konbaung Dynasty — and spent all eight years of his reign, from 1752 to 1760, fighting to reunify the country splintered under a variety of kinglets and to keep foreign powers out.

His prompt acceding to British desire for ship berths was doubtless informed by his desire to maintain strong trade ties to Britain and its rich supply of weapons.

The golden letter was formally presented to the Leibniz Library yesterday. It will go on display for a short time, but given its fragile condition, extreme rarity and high face value, most of the time it will be kept out of public view.

The letter will be the subject of an international congress next year.

Rare 1770 map of New York restored like magic

Map cataloger Carolyn Hansen was going through the warehoused archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society this May when she found a rolled-up linen canvas. When she gingerly attempted to unfurl the crispy brown shellacked roll, she heard it rip. She stopped immediately but not before she saw a name: Ratzer.

Bernard Ratzer was a British Army officer who surveyed the east coast of America during the French and Indian War and the early days of the American Revolution. His 1770 map, “Plan of the City of New York,” is famous for its sharp detail and in-depth rendering of the topography, geography, streets and notable buildings of Manhattan.

“It’s one of the ways we know about how this place looked before the grid really took hold,” said Matthew A. Knutzen, geospatial librarian in the New York Public Library’s map division.

It’s also incredibly rare. There were only three known to survive. One copy the publishers sent to King George III, now in the British Library in London, and two are in delicate condition in storage at the New York Historical Society on the Upper West Side where they’ve been since they were donated by NYHS founder John Pintard on Jan. 4, 1810.

The Brooklyn Historical Society, on the other hand, had no record of owning any Razter map, never mind the ultra-rare 1770 “Plan” one. The map Hansen found had been shellacked and mounted on linen at some point, probably to decorate some wall. The name Pierrepont, a prominent Brooklyn family, was on the back of the linen. The hard-coated map had been cut into strips so it could be rolled and stored. When Hansen and other BHS personnel oh-so-carefully managed to unroll just enough to see what they were dealing with, they found the 1770 Ratzer “Plan of the City of New York.”

Realizing they had found a previously-unknown fourth Ratzer 1770 but that it was so fragile that it might not even exist for long — three strips of shellacked paper crumbled at the touch — the Brooklyn Historical Society called in paper conservationist Jonathan P. Derow who promptly swooped in to save the day and restore the map to a condition that will shock and amaze you.

Derow made a little plastic tent over the map in the middle of the BHS office and put a humidifier inside. That softened the paper enough so that he could transport it back to his office for conservation.

He washed the map for four days in an alkaline bath that removed acid and grime, and he cut away the linen backing. He aligned the pieces, using a strong magnifying glass and tweezers, and let the map dry, only to see tiny gaps appear between strips, the result of the paper’s shrinking. He rewet it and started over, but let the pieces overlap slightly. That worked: the map shrank perfectly in place.

White lines were visible where the map had ripped, the brighter inner fabrics of the paper standing out from the stained surface. Mr. Derow visited Argosy Book Store on the Upper East Side and bought a handful of obscure old books — among them, for example, “The Select Dialogues of Lucian, to Which Is Added, a New Literal Translation in Latin, With Notes in English,” from 1804 — that were printed on cloth paper, like the map, and not wood pulp.

He performed on them a technique that should chill the blood of any author, wondering where his books will be in 200 years: he baked them in his kitchen stove and boiled them in water. He painted the resulting brackish stew onto the white lines, matching them to the rest of the map.

The astonishing result:

Ratzer "Plan of the City of  New York" map, 1770, before (l) and after (r) restoration

Now that the map is back in top shape and safe behind plexiglass, the Brooklyn Historical Society plans to put it on public display. You can zoom in for closeup views of the before and after pictures on this page.

Ancient Indian temple stitched back together

Kailasanathar Temple before (l) after (r)The 1,250-year-old Kailasanathar Temple in the town of Uthiramerur, one of the oldest temples in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is in danger of collapse. Its 80-feet-high dome has developed cracks as much as three feet wide. The thick pelt of vegetation covering the dome makes conservation difficult, and there is very little government to be had for restoration projects. In a country bristling with ancient monuments, the Indian government preserves just 5% of them.

Indian heritage conservation organization REACH enlisted engineering experts from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, to examine the foundation of the temple and determine what, if anything, could be done with limited funds and care for historical integrity.

When the monument was examined it was found that a few stones in the sub-structure were dislodged from their original position, and there were several cracks in the plinth due to stress, strain and shock says Anu Padma, who was involved in the conservation project as a research scholar.

“In Uthiramerur the options were limited. If the broken stones are to be removed and replaced, the restoration process would have become very complicated and could have further damaged the temple dome,” Dr [MS Mathews of the civil engineering department at IIT-M] said. […]

So the team at IIT-M decided that “granite stitching” would be the most simple, least invasive and the necessary method to restore the temple to its original glory, Dr Mathews said.

The site observation and inspection showed that the cracks in the granite stones were “non-progressive” and laboratory tests were conducted to assess the load-bearing capacity of stitched granite beams in comparison with the solid, uncracked granite beams.

“Test results proved that the stitching would bear the desired load,” Ms Anu Padma said.

Granite stitching is a technique that uses steel rods and epoxy to pull two sides of a crack back together. Restorers drill a diagonal hole (at approximately 45 degrees) that passes through both sides of the crack, remove the granite dust and chips, then pump the hole full of an epoxy grout. Then they insert a grooved stainless steel rod into the drilled tunnel and fill in the holes with some of the granite dust removed after drilling. The rod is embedded in both sides of the rock, effectively sealing the granite back together just like a stitch in a piece of clothing, and without any unsightly visible supports.

Drilling, epoxy application, steel rod, holes filled, crack stitched

It’s an inexpensive technique but because they were applying it to an ancient structure, experts ensured that they used the highest quality materials. The stainless steel rods have a high percentage of chromium which will keep them from corroding for at least 500 years. Hopefully somewhere in those five centuries there will be proper funding and care for India’s ancient monuments so those rods won’t be stretched to their limits.

Once the foundation was stabilized, restorers turned their attentions to the superstructure, repairing the dome and its elaborate figure carvings out of a limestone plaster based on the ancient formula.

You can find some pictures of the restoration in REACH’s flickr account.