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

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

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

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

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

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!