Archive for January, 2013

Bullets found from Hatfield ambush of McCoy cabin

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

The violent culmination of the epic feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys took place in the hilly woodlands of Pike County, Kentucky, in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 1888. While it was still dark, a group of nine Hatfields led by Uncle Jim Vance surrounded Randolph McCoy’s cabin and opened fire on the family slumbering within. The McCoys returned fire through the second floor windows and the front door, but were forced to flee when the Hatfields set the cabin on fire.

Randolph himself managed to escape with some of his children, but his son Calvin and his daughter Alifair were killed in the assault. His wife Sarah was beaten into unconsciousness. The brutal New Year’s Night Massacre, as it became known, made the news all over the country and although two more people would die over the next few weeks and one would be hanged two years later for the murder of Alifair, New Year’s Day 1888 marked the final turning point in the feud.

The exact location of Randolph’s cabin was forgotten over the years. Bob Scott, a descendant of the Hatfields, today owns the land in the hills of Pike County where the cabin was generally known to have been. His parents and grandparents told him stories about the property and its role in the feud. Last year, National Geographic’s metal detecting Diggers, together with local historian Bill Richardson explored the area where according to family lore the McCoy cabin once stood.

They were successful. The Diggers team found three different kinds of bullets, including shotgun pellets, buried into the hillside in an area about 30 feet wide. The ammunition dates to the time of the shootout. Experts believe this bullet-riddled area is across from the front of the cabin since that was the epicenter of the exchange of fire. It matches the oral histories which record the McCoy’s shooting back at the Hatfields from the upper windows and front door. They also found a piece of charred wood with a nail in it that matches the period of the cabin.

These initial discoveries were later confirmed by a team from the Kentucky Archaeological Survey led by archaeologist Dr. Kim McBride. They found fragments of window glass and ceramics from the period of the New Year’s Night Massacre and additional charred wood and nails. They also found supporting documentary evidence.

“This is an incredible discovery behind America’s greatest family feud,” [McBride] said in a recent press release from National Geographic. “After spending two days excavating at the site, we were pleased to find a number of original artifacts from the actual structure, such as window glass and both wrought and machine-cut nails, and we were able to trace the lineage of the property right back to Randall McCoy and his wife, Sarah McCoy. As archaeologists, we are very excited to find real evidence to back theories that have abounded for decades.”

According to McBride, the experience was an unlikely pairing of metal detecting enthusiasts with professional archaeologists, but the partnership demonstrated that the two groups can work together to find and properly document artifacts in a scientific manner benefiting both interests. The effort to find material evidence associated with the McCoy homestead was initiated by the “Diggers” team; however, the discovery of the artifacts would have had little meaning without the additional systematic investigations and recovery of other artifacts by trained archaeologists who could interpret them within the context of where and how they were found, she said.

The first airing of the Diggers episode was January 29th, but there are reruns aplenty to catch. The next airing is Friday, February 1st at 1:10 PM EST. There are some clips available online, but not the entire episode.

The history of the Hatfields and McCoys has seen a resurgence of popularity since the History channel miniseries broke cable viewing records. Bob Scott plans to take advantage of the historic find on his property by developing it for tourism. One of the options he’s apparently considering is a housing development with horseback and ATV trails, which sounds sort of hideous to me so I hope it doesn’t happen.

17th c. gold coin hoard found in Co. Tipperary pub

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

At noon on Monday, January 14th, construction workers renovating Cooney’s Bar in the South Tipperary town of Carrick-on-Suir unearthed 81 gold coins from the 17th century. The building crew was digging a hole in front of the pub’s bar area to prep the area before pouring a new concrete pad when Shane Murray found the coins lying on their sides, back to front like they were in one of those paper tubes you get at the bank to organize your penny jar. Whatever was once holding them together has decayed but the shape remains. The space where they were stashed was a recess — possibly an old door opening or a fireplace — opposite where the pub’s front counter once stood.

Murray showed them to his boss, contractor Shane Comerford, and Comerford threw them on the ground thinking they were fakes or tokens or some other kind of insignificant geegaw. Murray knew they were for reals gold, though, so he scooped them up. He and his crewmates examined them more closely and found 17th century dates and the belaureled profiles of English monarchs Charles II, James II, William and Mary and William III.

Shane Comerford took the coins to the pub’s owner, David Kiersey, and they sought legal counsel. By Irish law, all archaeological objects belong to the state and must be declared to the authorities within 96 hours of discovery. Comerford handed over the coins to the Carrick-on-Suir gardai (Irish police) and the gardai brought them to curators at the South Tipperary Museum. They are now being examined by experts at Dublin’s National Museum.

The coins haven’t been thoroughly examined or assessed for value yet, but according the a National Museum statement they are mostly Guineas with a few half Guineas in the mix. (Guineas were coins minted in England from the 17th to 18th century using gold from West Africa, hence the name.) No hoard of gold coins from the 1600s has been discovered in Ireland since 1947.

Marie McMahon, curator of South Tipperary Museum in Clonmel, who was at Cooney’s Bar last Wednesday while the archaeological examinations were taking place, hailed the hoard of coins as South Tipperary’s most important archaeological find since the discovery of the Derrynaflan chalice in the early 1980s.

She said the coins were in very good condition but there wasn’t any clues as to why they were there. The premises they were found in may have been built on the site of one of Carrick-on-Suir’s old lanes.

Carrick-on-Suir was founded on an island in the River Suir in the 13th century. Its location put in smack in the middle of a lot of trade traffic. It was occupied by Parliamentary forces in 1649 during Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland but was returned to the control of Royalist James Butler, the Duke of Ormond, after the restoration of the monarchy. In 1670, the Butler family founded the wool trade in Carrick-on-Suir, another potential source of gold coinage.

The 81 coins were viewed by dignitaries at the National Museum of Ireland on Wednesday, January 30th, but they are not yet on public display. Marie McMahon hopes the collection will return to its hometown for display at the South Tipperary Museum. If insurance proves to be a difficulty because of security concerns at the small local museum, replicas of the coins will be made for display.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon reunited

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

For the first time since their world-altering acrimonious divorce, King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon have been reunited in painted form in London’s National Portrait Gallery. The early portrait of Henry VIII, painted around 1520 by an unknown Anglo-Dutch artist, has been in the NPG since 1969. The one of Catherine, on the other hand, is a relatively new discovery.

In 2008, Gallery staff went to Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain survey. They noticed a portrait of a woman in 1520s dress hanging in private sitting room. The subject was purportedly Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, but the style of clothing and facial features were more reminiscent of Catherine of Aragon.

The Gallery borrowed the painting to analyze it further in their conservation lab. They found that the original portrait had been considerably altered. Under raking light (bright light held at an angle against a surface) the black background was revealed to be an overlay covering what had once been a patterned background painted to look like damask silk. An X-ray clearly indicated that the black overlay was also covering up the veil attached to the headdress. An ultra violet digital photograph showed that the face and chest had been considerably repainted in past restorations. The eyebrows were strengthened, the nose narrowed with shadows, white added to the eyes and a curvy brown line painted between the lips to separate them.

The analysis confirmed that this was not Catherine Parr, but rather a portrait of Catherine of Aragon from the 1520s. With that in mind, conservators worked painstakingly to remove the restorations. They removed the black overlay from the background to reveal the dark green damask pattern, a style very similar to the one in the background of the 1520 portrait of Henry VIII. They were also able to clean and remove the alterations to her face in stages. During the process they discovered diagonal lines of paint loss so strong that they would require the judicious application of translucent glazes to replace what was gone. From the strength of the paint loss and its focus on the face, experts believe the portrait was probably damaged deliberately.

The frame also received some tender loving care from Gallery conservators. It’s a rare thing, the original engaged oak frame that was constructed around the panel before the portrait was painted, a sort of combo easel/frame. Even rarer was the survival of some of the original decorative finish underneath layers of paint and gilding applied over the centuries. Conservators were able to recover much of the original bands of color painted blue with azurite and red with vermillion.

The finished product made a fine companion piece to the 1520s Henry VIII portrait. That’s not to say they were originally a paired set, but they’re from the same period, done in the same style and the same size. They’re examples of types of portraits that would have been copied and spread around, sometimes together, sometimes individually. If these two were ever together or at least paired with versions of each other, the last time was almost 500 years ago, before Catherine was banished from court in 1531.

Dr Charlotte Bolland, Project Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London says: “It is wonderful to have the opportunity to display this important early portrait of Catherine of Aragon at the Gallery. Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were married for nearly twenty four years and during that time their portraits would have been displayed together in this fashion, as king and queen of England.”

Henry and Catherine are reunited on the wall of Room 1. The exhibit is free to visitors and will run from January 25th to September 1st, 2013.

Casing of exploded torpedo found on Hunley spar

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Researchers at the Hunley Project have found an important piece of evidence that has changed what we know about the mysterious demise of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley: the exploded remains of the copper torpedo casing still bolted to the spar, the 16-foot-long iron pole that served as the sub’s weapon delivery system.

The spar has been on display at Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Lab where the Hunley has been conserved since it was raised from Charleston Harbor in 2000, but since the sub itself was the main priority, conservator Paul Mardikian wasn’t able to begin working on removing the concretions from the spar until last fall. Once the thick concrete-layer of silt and sand was gone, he found that the dense area they had seen on an X-ray was not a release mechanism bur rather the copper sleeve of the torpedo itself. This means the torpedo exploded at the end of the spar, a discovery of critical importance.

The Hunley was the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship in wartime. On the night of February 17th, 1864, the 40-foot hand-powered sub manned by a crew of eight rammed its spar torpedo into the starboard stern of the USS Housatonic, a 205-foot, 1,260-ton Union warship that was part of the fleet blockading Charleston Harbor. The blast blew a hole in the ship so wide that witnesses report seeing a couch float out of the hole sideways. Within minutes the Housatonic was sunk and five sailors dead (most survived on row boats and the others climbed the sail rigging that remained above the harbor’s water level).

We know the Hunley survived the explosion because the commander of Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island saw the submarine signal with a blue magnesium light indicating the success of the mission. Other witnesses, including one on the Housatonic, also reported seeing the blue signal light. After that, the Hunley and its crew was never heard from again. It sank just outside Charleston Harbor where it remained, buried in sand and silt, until it was raised in 2000.

What the torpedo casing on the tip of the spar proves is that the Hunley was much closer to the Housatonic at the time of the explosion than anyone realized.

Until now, the conventional wisdom has been the Hunley would ram the spar torpedo into her target and then back away, causing the torpedo to slip off the spar. A rope from the torpedo to the submarine would spool out and detonate once the submarine was at a safe distance. This theory has always had difficulty under scrutiny since it would be very hard to actually lodge the torpedo into the hull of the enemy ship.

Finding a portion of the original torpedo casing has enabled the team to confirm a long held suspicion that it was built and designed by a group associated with Edgar Singer (cousin of the famous sewing machine entrepreneur Isaac Singer). A period diagram housed at the National Archives indicates that this Singer torpedo held 135 pounds of gunpowder and was detonated by a trigger mechanism.

This means the Captain had to position the torpedo while still attached to the spar and trigger it when the time was right.

Since the spar is just over 16 feet long and the torpedo was two feet long, the Hunley was less than 20 feet from the warship when those 135 pounds of black powder blew. At that distance, the crew could have been stunned by a shock wave. Even if only a few of the eight crewmen were knocked unconscious, the hand-cranked propulsion system that kept the vessel moving would have been severely undermined.

This possibility is supported by a clue straight out of Agatha Christie: Lieutenant George E. Dixon’s pocket watch was found stopped at 8:23 PM, almost exactly the time the Housatonic crew reported being under attack. Also, the remains of all eight men were found at their stations. There is no evidence that they tried to escape.

The new information about the spar torpedo gives researchers precious information that will allow them to run computer models and simulations of how the explosion affected the Hunley. They now have physical evidence — so much of the eye-witness evidence and conventional wisdom has turned out to be completely wrong — of the distance between submarine and ship, and of the strength of the payload. Hunley Project researchers hope to enlist the aid of third party computer modeling experts to simulate the blast, and then perhaps to create scale models of the attack.

Since thick concretions coat the body of the submarine, we still don’t know if it was disabled in any way by the explosion. Conservation has been everyone’s top priority since 137 years in salt water is not kind to iron. The vessel, submerged in a 90,000-gallon tank of cold fresh water at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, was turned upright in June of 2011 after spending more than 10 years on its starboard side in a truss. The truss only came off two weeks ago, revealing the submarine surface in its unobstructed entirety.

At the end of this year, WLCC scientists hope to replace the fresh water in the tank with a chemical bath that will slowly leach the salt out of the iron. Once the solution has had a few months to do its thing, researchers plan to remove the encrusted layer of silt, sand and rock. This will allow the chemicals direct access to the iron which will speed up the salt removal and will allow examination of the iron skin. Scientists hope this will answer many of the remaining questions about how and whether the sub was damaged in the attack.

Vikings left Greenland for cultural, social reasons?

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Vikings from Norway, Iceland and Denmark began to colonize Greenland in the late 10th century. Those were the halcyon days of the Medieval Warm Period (950 to 1250 A.D.), when pastures were green and farmland fertile. The Norse brought cattle with them and started farms in hundreds of settlements on the southern fjords. They prospered at first, founding vibrant communities with dozens of churches.

The good times started cooling off in the 13th century as the fertile warmth was replaced by the frigid storms of the Little Ice Age. For years historians have thought that the colder temperatures had resulted in crop failure and the death of livestock which in turn decimated the Norse colony. Settlers died from famine and disease and whoever was left beat a hasty retreat.

An archaeological study by a team of Danish and Canadian researchers proffers a new reason for the demise of the Norse settlements in Greenland: they chose to leave in orderly fashion in order to sustain their cultural identity and live in the style to which they did not want to become unaccustomed. The bone evidence and material remains suggest that the Viking settlers were not starving or ill, that they left the island deliberately taking all their valuables with them. It wasn’t a matter of life or death. It was a matter of the life they wanted to live no longer being possible.

The Norse settlers had lived for two centuries eating primarily food they cultivated and beef they raised, only supplementing their diet with seafood. Their aim in moving to Greenland was to get some land of their own to farm and ranch. Building materials, wood, iron, were supplied by trade with their homelands. The plan worked as long as the warm period held.

With the onset of colder temperatures, the pastures couldn’t support the cattle over the long winters. For a few decades ranchers tried replacing the cattle with pigs, but by 1300 the pigs were gone too. Sheep and goats lasted longer, but ranching and farming as the Norse practiced them simply could not sustain life in the new climate. There is no evidence that they even tried to keep the cattle alive using a starvation diet, a practice that was thoroughly established by their ancestors in cold climes and remained in use until recently.

Seafood, which had supplied no more than 30% of their diet in the warm days, shot up to 80% in the 14th century. Most of that 80% was seal, a reliable supply of which could be secured during the animals’ yearly migration stops on the island. They also had to use seals and fish to feed whatever livestock they had left.

Trade shriveled up too. The market for walrus tusks and seal skins, the goods the Greenland colonists had to trade, bottomed out. Ships came less frequently until by the middle of the 14th century there was no regular trade between the Norse settlements of Greenland and the motherlands of Norway and Iceland. Without reliable trade they had to hope for a random ship to stop by to renew their supply of iron or wood.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, that was not what they meant at all. That was not it, at all.

The settlers were probably also worried about the increasing loss of their Scandinavian identity. They saw themselves as farmers and ranchers rather than fishermen and hunters. Their social status depended on the land and livestock they owned, but it was precisely these things that could no longer help them produce what they needed to survive.

Although the descendants of the Vikings had adjusted to life in the north, there were limits to their assimilation. “They would have had to live more and more like the Inuit, distancing themselves from their cultural roots,” says [National Museum of Denmark archaeologist Jette] Arneborg. “This growing contradiction between identity and reality was apparently what led to their decline.”

The young people of childbearing age left first. Archaeologists found almost no skeletons of young women from the late period of Norse settlement. The documentary evidence supports that pattern. The wedding of Thorstein Olafsson, a lad from Iceland, and Sigrid Björnsdottir, a local girl, was held on September 14th, 1408, in Greenland’s Hvalsey Church. We know this because when they moved to Iceland, they had to prove to the local bishop that they had been married in a proper sanctioned church ceremony. Those documents are the last records we have of the Norse settlers in Greenland.

Everyone else left shortly thereafter. The fact that no precious objects have been unearthed anywhere in the archaeological record of Norse Greenland indicates that they moved, packing all their treasures, rather than being devastated by disease, natural disaster or starvation. The bone evidence confirms that there was no more illness and hunger among the late Nordic population of Greenland than among comparable populations in Scandinavia.

16th c. locket found by 3-year-old on display at BM

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

On Sunday May 17th, 2009, three-year-old James Hyatt, his father and grandfather were exploring a field in Hockley, Essex. James went first, using his grandfather’s metal detector. After five minutes of scanning, the machine alerted.

“It went beep, beep, beep. Then we dug into the mud. There was gold there,” James, now four, said.

“We didn’t have a map. Only pirates use treasure maps,” he stated.

James is indeed wise in the way of treasure. After digging down eight inches into the soil, they pulled out an engraved locket which turned out to be reliquary from the early 1500s. As a gold object more than 300 years old, the locket was declared official treasure trove under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act at a coroner’s inquest.

When it made the news in late 2010, there was much excited speculation that the discovery was so rare it could be worth millions of pounds. It is rare — one of only four similar pieces known — but the market value turned out to be considerably lower. The British Museum acquired it for £70,000 ($110,000) and the sum was split between the Hyatt family and the owner of the land on which the locket was found. In terms of history, however, it’s a million dollar discovery which is why it’s now on display in the British Museum’s Medieval Europe gallery.

The diamond-shaped pendant is engraved on the front with the image of a female saint, probably Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, holding the cross. Dashes along the length and width of the cross are meant to indicate wood grain. The saint stands on a checkerboard pattern tile floor while on either side of her and the cross are floral tendrils.

On the back side is a veritable shower of blood droplets falling out of and over four incisions and a cut heart symbolizing the five wounds of Christ. That back piece is actually a panel that slides out along grooves cut into the sides. Inside would have been kept a small relic. Given the imagery on the pendant, the contents were probably thought to be a piece of the True Cross which according to legend Saint Helena found on her trip to the Holy Land from 326 to 328 A.D. Helena is often depicted holding the cross because of her famous finds.

The back didn’t open when the reliquary was first found. The bottom was damaged, pressed inwards so it was derailed from its guide grooves. Marilyn Hockey, Head of Metals Conservation in the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research was able to correct this by painstakingly prying the back up from the bottom working under a microscope to lift the panel with a miniature probe.

When the back finally slid out, conservators found (drumroll) a few flax fibers locally grown. Sorry, no piece of the True Cross. Examination of the fibers with a scanning electron microscope identified fragments of the outer stems of flax. These are unprocessed and would not be present if the flax fibers were from threads of linen fabric. They’re root hairs, basically, which could well have gotten in there during the pendant’s sojourn underground.

On three sides of the of the pendant are inscribed the names of the Three Wise Men — Iaspar (Caspar), Melcior (Melchiore), Baltasar (Balthazar) — in a lovely Lombardic script. The fourth side has a floral tendril similar to the ones on either side of Helena.

The pendant is 1 inch wide and 1.3 inches long which makes its rich decoration even more unusual and difficult to produce. Experts believe the engravings were likely enameled when the piece was new. That would have given the object a rich combination of colors on top of the precious metal, a popular style in late Medieval jewelry. Only a very wealthy person could have afforded to buy such an expensive symbol of their pious dedication to the blood and wounds of Christ.

Looters butcher church frescoes in Albania

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Frescoes in the 16th-century Orthodox church of St. Friday’s in Valsh, a remote Albanian village 35 miles south of Tirana, have been damaged beyond repair by looters. Twice in a week, the first time on December 30th, the second on January 4th, thieves hacked at the frescoes with axes and knives, focusing mainly on removing the heads of saints.

To add insult to injury, the looters were incompetent. Most of the seven or eight frescoes (the number is different in different reports) attacked wound up crushed in pieces on the floor instead of removed whole. Some of the worst damage was done to the fresco of St. Friday’s. His entire head and the aureole around it is gone, as is the inscription to the left of the halo which was important for art historical reference.

The frescoes are by master icon painter Onufri who lived in Valsh and frescoed the walls of its modest little church in 1554. Known for his use of brilliant colors and his introduction of more realistic facial expressions into the flat conventions of Byzantine style, Onufri is considered Albania’s greatest icon maker, although it’s not certain if he was born in what is today Albania or in northern Greece. The signature on his Valsh frescoes — Protopapas — indicates he held a position of importance in the Greek Orthodox church.

The first bout of destruction was discovered by the villagers who notified the police, local heritage officials and the Orthodox Church immediately. The locks were changed but nothing else was done to protect the church, and the thieves just waltzed right back in five days later and hacked at the walls some more. The ease with which this offense was perpetrated has led some heritage advocates to suspect that the police may have been involved, or at least paid off.

Albania is a very bad space right now when it comes to heritage protection. Since the fall of the communist regime in 1991, more the 2,000 icons have been stolen from churches and museums. In the past two years alone, 20 Orthodox churches and monasteries have been targeted by looters. In 2007, the Ministry of Culture eliminated the custodian system which, while fairly weak, at least ensured that sites of cultural and historical importance were guarded by a living breathing human being. It was cheap, too. The guards were paid €30 ($40) a month, for a total yearly cost to the government of just €40,000 ($54,000).

I don’t care how broke they are, there is no way that this program had to be eliminated purely to save costs. In fact, after years of protests from Orthodox officials and heritage advocates, in 2011 the government budgeted €200,000 ($266,000) for cultural heritage protection. This did not assuage the people concerned about the decimation of Albania’s history, because it’s a ludicrously paltry sum.

The Ministry of Culture is irritatingly fatalistic about this ongoing disaster. Head of the heritage department Olsi Lafe said at a press conference last week that they are working with the police on the thefts at Valsh, but there isn’t much they can do on the larger problem. They have too much territory, much of it rural, to cover effectively.

“Considering the large number of religious heritage monuments, it’s impossible to protect them 24-hours a day,” the ministry said. “It would require a large number of people and a special administrative structure,” it added.

Yes it’s amazing how significant programs require manpower and funding. Shocking news there.

Uknown 17th c. Le Brun painting found at Paris Ritz

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

On August 1st, 2012, the iconic Ritz Hotel in Paris’ Place Vendôme closed its doors for the first time since Swiss hotelier César Ritz and chef Auguste Escoffier opened them in 1898. They will remain closed for two years while the venerable establishment is renovated from stem to stern. The famously opulent contents were removed in September to be stored in a secret location.

While taking inventory of the Coco Chanel Suite, the designer’s home from 1934 until her death in 1971, the Ritz’s artistic advisor Joseph Friedman was struck by a large painting on the wall depicting the ritual slaying of Trojan princess Polyxena.

“When I saw this painting in the suite, I had to take a step back. It had a very powerful impact,” Friedman told AFP.
“The use of colour and the movement are remarkable. The influence of (Baroque master Nicolas) Poussin is obvious.”

Friedman’s colleague Wanda Tymowsa identified the initials CLBF and the date 1647 in the corner of the canvas. The initials stand for Charles Le Brun Fecit (Charles Le Brun made it). Experts from Christie’s and leading French museums examined the painting and unanimously confirmed the attribution.

The 1647 painting, dubbed by Christie’s The Sacrifice of Polyxena, shows the youngest daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba with a dagger to her throat about to be sacrificed at the foot of Achilles’ tomb. In Euripides’ play Hecuba, the ghost of Achilles tells the Greeks that Polyxena must be sacrificed before the gods will send them the winds needed to carry them home and that Achilles’ son Neoptolemus is to do the deed. Polyxena goes willingly to her death over her mother’s despairing protestations.

Then seizing his golden sword by the hilt [Neoptolemus] drew it from its scabbard, signing the while to the picked young Argive warriors to hold the maid. But she, when she was ware thereof, uttered her voice and said: “O Argives, who have sacked my city! of my free will I die; let none lay hand on me; for bravely will I yield my neck. Leave me free, I do beseech; so slay me, that death may find me free; for to be called a slave amongst the dead fills my royal heart with shame.” Thereat the people shouted their applause, and king Agamemnon bade the young men loose the maid. So they set her free, as soon as they heard this last command from him whose might was over all. And she, hearing her captors’ words took her robe and tore it open from the shoulder to the waist, displaying a breast and bosom fair as a statue’s; then sinking on her knee, one word she spake more piteous than all the rest, “Young prince, if ’tis my breast thou’dst strike, lo! here it is, strike home! or if at my neck thy sword thou’lt aim, behold! that neck is bared.”

Le Brun made sure to capture the breast and bosom as fair as a statue’s, that’s for sure. Hecuba is on the bottom right, struggling to keep hold of her daughter while a Greek warrior (Odysseus?) pulls her away.

It’s an amazing find, a previously unknown early work by a painter who would become the predominant figure of French art of the 17th century. The Ritz archives have no information about the work, no record of purchase or installation. It could have been on the premises when César Ritz purchased the property, but the original 1705 building was extensively rebuilt during its conversion to the Ritz so that guests could have the latest and greatest amenities like electricity and en suite bathrooms in every room.

According to Christie’s Paris director of antique paintings Cécile Bernard, the painting with its elevated mythological subject is a “serious and academically perfect illustration of French classicism” and as such was probably commissioned rather than something Le Brun worked on privately. The discovery gives her hope that there may be other early works of Le Brun out there that we haven’t found yet.

In 1647, Le Brun was 28 years old already a successful artist. No less a figure than Cardinal Richelieu had commissioned several works from him when he was a teenager. Those paintings caught the eye of Nicolas Poussin, then Premier peintre du Roi (First painter to the King), who took the youth under his wing. When Poussin traveled to Rome in 1642, he took Le Brun with him. The young painter stayed in Rome studying the works of Raphael and antiquity with the master for three years, returning to Paris in 1646. He immediately began to receive commissions from courtiers and functionaries like finance minister Nicolas Fouquet and Richelieu’s successor as chief minister, Cardinal Jules Mazarin.

In those years after his return Poussin’s influence was still so strong in his work that people confused Le Brun’s paintings with Poussin’s. His time in Rome is reflected in the meticulous detail on the marble sarcophagus, vase, tripod and the incense casket the little boy is holding. The casket is derived from a drawing Le Brun made of ancient piece he saw in Rome, a drawing which has survived and was published in 2000.

In the 1660s, Le Brun would reach the pinnacle of success. King Louis XIV loved him and commissioned a series of paintings on epic mythological and battle themes. In 1664, Louis appointed him Poussin’s successor as First painter to the King, a post he held until his death in 1690. The Sun King dubbed him “the greatest French artist of all time.”

If his last name sounds familiar in a more recent context, that’s because Charles Le Brun’s grand-nephew Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun would marry Louise-Élisabeth Vigée who would become famous as Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, official portrait painter of the last Ancien Régime queen, Marie Antoinette.

The Sacrifice of Polyxena is going on display at Christie’s New York from January 26th to 29th. On April 15th, the painting will be auctioned at Christie’s Paris’ Old Masters and 19th Century Paintings sale. The pre-sale estimate is €300,000 – 500,000 ($400,000 – 668,000). Mohamed Al Fayed, owner of the Ritz, is selling it “because he thinks its quality means it should be in a museum,” which is a bit of an eyeroller since odds are it’s going to be bought by someone with far deeper pockets than museums tend to have.

Gold Rush jewelry box stolen from Oakland Museum

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

The depressing trend of thefts from California Gold Rush museums continues, doubtless driven by the high price of gold ($1,693 an ounce as of yesterday). The latest victim is the Oakland Museum of California. Early Monday morning, January 7th, a thief broke into the closed museum through a locked door on an outdoor garden. He then made his way to the second floor exhibit through an emergency exit door and stole one artifact: a Gold Rush-era jewel box made out of California gold and gold-veined quartz. (A second artifact, a scale used to weigh gold, valued at around $2,000, was taken but did not leave the premises. Curators found it elsewhere in the museum.)

The jewelry box was in a plexiglass display case rigged with an alarm. A security guard heard the alarm and saw the theft on the surveillance video, but he was in another part of the museum and the burglar got away before the police arrived.

The beautiful piece is one of the greatest treasures of the museum’s extensive 1.8 million-object permanent collection and is worth at least $800,000. The museum hasn’t released the exact monetary value because the artifact hasn’t been appraised in years and its historical value far eclipses its market price.

The historic jewelry box, was made between 1869 and 1878 by A. Andrews, a San Francisco goldsmith, and is signed. It is made of California gold, and features a rectangular moulded top and base that rests on four feet formed of four miniature female figures depicting allegorical California. The artifact is seven inches in height; nine inches on length; and seven inches in depth. The top pilasters and mouldings are of veined gold quartz in tones of grey and cream with veining of gold. The interior of the top is recessed and engraved in full relief with scene of the early days of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads, mounted Native Americans, herds of buffalo, and a train of cars. The gold quartz is cut and set in mosaic fashion in the top of the lid, exterior and the sides are gold veined quartz.

It was reportedly commissioned by a California pioneer as an anniversary present to his wife. It’s a one of a kind object, the epitome of a California artifact in design, material, workmanship and ownership history. The Oakland Museum of California is dedicated to the art, history and natural history of California, and this piece qualifies on every score.

The museum’s insurer is offering a $12,000 reward for the safe recovery of the jewelry box. (People involved in the theft in any capacity, before, during or after, cannot claim the reward.) The thief is going to have a hard time selling it because it is so recognizable. Museum officers fear that the thief plans to melt the box down for its sheer gold value.

The last time the jewelry box was stolen (it has a bit of a record, I’m sad to say) was in 1978. The thief sold it intact, thankfully, and it eventually made its way back to the museum in 1985 when an art appraiser found it and returned it after he realized it had been stolen.

The museum has been a more recent target of theft as well. This is the second burglary at the museum in two months. The last break-in also happened on a Monday, on November 12th, 2012. Gold nuggets and other artifacts were the target that time. Again the alarms went off and the police arrived within three minutes of the guards’ call to 911, but again the thief was faster than they were. Based on surveillance video, authorities believe both burglaries were done by the same man.

The museum is asking that anyone with information contact the Oakland Police Department’s Major Crimes Section at (510) 238-3951 or the tip line at 855-TIPS-247. You can also text TIP OAKLANDPD to 888777.

Meanwhile the museum is beefing up its security, already markedly beefed up after the November break-in, and has hired a security consulting firm to see what else they can do to take the bullseye off their back.

Programming Note

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

The blog is moving to a new server tonight. My unquenchable thirst for large pictures maxed out my allotted hard drive space a few months ago. Since then, in order to upload new pictures I’ve had to go back through old posts to delete media I uploaded and never used or superfluous extras like images I cropped using the WordPress crop tool which creates two images instead of saving over the original. It’s been, to put it mildly, a gigantic pain in the ass. After tonight, I can be a glutton again.

The migration begins at 10:00 PM PST (1:00 AM EST, 6:00 AM GMT). I don’t know how long the site will be down but I’m hoping it’ll be a couple of hours at most. Keep your fingers crossed.

EDIT: And we’re back. Thanks, Fortuna!





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