Salvador Dalí fruit watercolors sell for $1 million

In 1969, Swiss publisher Jean Schneider commissioned Salvador Dalí to make something new and exciting out of 19th century botanical illustrations. The Surrealist artist took ten images from Pierre-Antoine Poiteau’s Pomologie française: recueil des plus beaux fruits cultivés en France (originally published in 1808; Dalí probably used the 1848 edition) and three from Traité des arbres et arbustes que l’on cultive en France by Duhamel du Monceau, illustrations by Pierre-Jean Redouté. He painted over and around the engravings with watercolors, using an element of the original prints as a jumping off point for his characteristically whimsical, sexual, humorous, orthogonal-to-reality vision.

As he later declared, in connection with his designs for jewellery, ‘I see the human form in trees, leaves, animals; the animal and vegetable in the human. My art – in paint, diamonds, rubies, pearls, emeralds, gold, chrysoprase – shows the metamorphosis that takes place; human beings create and change. When they sleep, they change totally –into flowers, plants, trees. In Heaven comes the new metamorphosis. The body becomes whole again and attains perfection.’ (quoted in Dalí Jewels: A Collection of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, Milan, 1999, p. 36).

Here’s an example of that metamorphosis he describes. The original is Monsieur hâtif by Pierre-Jean Redouté. Dalí transforms the scientifically rigorous 200-year-old botanical image into Prunier hâtif, meaning Hasty plum.

This short Bonhams video describing the series superimposes the modifications over the originals so you can see the transformation in action.

Schneider published the paintings in a lithograph series known as the FruitDalí Series which was immediately popular with art collectors. The original watercolor studies, on the other hand, went into hiding. Schneider stashed them in a bank vault and they remained there unknown for decades. With the exception of a single exhibition in an art gallery Cologne in late 2000, early 2001, the watercolors have never even been seen. The gallery purchased the watercolors on consignment from Schneider and the current owner bought them from the gallery.

The fourteen watercolors were sold at Bonhams’ Impressionist and Modern Art sale in London on June 18th not as a single lot but as individuals. They went for well above their estimates; the total price paid for all 14 was £726,700 ($1,120,000).

The mystery of the spinning Egyptian statue

Back in February of this year, Manchester Museum‘s Egyptian artifacts curator Campbell Price was walking by a display case of Middle Kingdom funerary statuettes when he noticed one of the figurines was facing the back. Very few people have the keys to the display case and if any one of them had turned the 3,800-year-old statue around for a reason, like to expose the prayer inscribed on the back, they would have checked with him first. He put it back facing forward, but the next time he noticed the statuette was turned at a different angle. The day after it was at a third angle.

None of the other figurines in the display case had budged. Price was mystified. He asked other museum staffers about it and nobody knew anything about it. Enter the inevitable speculation about eerie ancient Egyptian curses/mystical powers/pyramid energies. These kinds of statuettes were placed in the tomb as a representation of the deceased. Mourners would leave offerings at its feet, as referenced in the inscription on the back:

“An offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Life, that he may give a voice offering, consisting of bread, beer, oxen and fowl for the Ka-spirit of”

The sentence is finished with an inscription of the deceased’s name on the front of the statuette base. It’s hard to read in this case, but the name appears to be “Neb-Senu.” According to Price, the Egyptians believed that these statuettes could act back-up vehicles for the spirit of the departed in the afterlife should the mummy be destroyed. Perhaps the soul of Neb-Senu felt like pirouetting.

The mummy and the statuette have been separate since at least 1933 when it was donated to the museum by Annie Barlow, daughter of Bolton cotton mill magnate James Barlow. The mill imported a great deal of cotton from Egypt and Annie became fascinated with Egyptian archaeology. She was a prominent supporter of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and personally traveled to its excavation on the Nile Delta in 1888. This was a bold choice for a single 25-year-old woman at the time. She was also a generous donor to local museums. Under the partage system, archaeological teams were entitled to keep a percentage of any artifacts they found. Annie Barlow consistently gifted her share of EES loot to museums like the Chadwick Museum (now the Bolton Museum) and the Manchester Museum.

Even as they indulge in a little fun with the allure of an exotic Egyptian religious source for the turning, the curators are well aware that there is most likely a simple physical explanation. Vibration from visitors walking by the case or from traffic outside could cause the movement, but it’s still odd that the statue has never moved before and that none of the other statuettes in the case move an inch.

To solve the mystery of the spinning statuette, the Manchester Museum staff set up a time-lapse camera to take one picture a minute for a week. This is the extremely awesome result.


Nobody is punking the museum. Neb-Senu is definitely moving on his own. Eat your heart out, Night at the Museum (that movie was such a disappointment).

Particle physicist and TV host Brian Cox weighed in on the issue. Not surprisingly, he does not attribute the statuette’s dance to ancient Egyptian spirits, but rather to differential friction. Curator Campbell Price is still mystified.

“Brian thinks it’s differential friction where two surfaces, the serpentine stone of the statuette and glass shelf it is on, cause a subtle vibration which is making the statuette turn. But it has been on those surfaces since we have had it and it has never moved before. And why would it go around in a perfect circle?”

I asked an extremely smart scientician type I know for clarification and he explained that it’s not just the two surfaces — stone and glass — which have different friction coefficients, but different parts of the statue’s base. You can clearly see in pictures that the base is uneven. There are lumps and bumps, missing bits, smoother parts, rougher parts. That means some parts of the base are going to experience more friction against the glass shelf than others. If one corner is rougher, then when the vibrations from the floor or the outside put lateral stress on the shelf, that rougher corner with the highest friction will stay put while the rest of the base rotates around it.

That doesn’t explain why it would start in February all of a sudden, but the statuette and its shelf are in the museum’s new Egyptian Afterlife gallery and even a small change in the circumstances — a cleaning or polishing of the statue, increased vibrations from, say, construction work — could have caused the not-all-that-wild rumpus to begin.

Unique 6th century gold lady found in Denmark

Three metal detector hobbyists scanning a field on the Danish island of Bornholm in early May discovered a stylized gold figurine of a nude woman. She’s a tiny thing, less than 1.7 inches high and weighing only three grams, but her maker managed to cram a great deal of detail in that small space.

Her slim body is elongated and gently curved and may have been carved from a solid thin bar of gold. Her face is Modigliani long with a prominent jaw and strong features. Her hair is represented by striations carved into the back of her head and forehead. Her arms stretch down to her waist but just under the shoulders there are indents on both sides that may indicate her arms have been tied to her body. Her fingers point downwards, touching a belt carved in a zig-zag pattern, while her thumbs are outstretched horizontally towards each other, meeting underneath her sagging breasts. Her genitalia are unmistakable between slender, short but remarkably shapely legs with alternating curves of buttocks, knees, calves and elegantly pointed feet. When you look at her from the side, her legs make her seem like she’s jumping or on her tippie-toes.

The detail on her back is of particular interest because it’s never been seen before. The concave sway of her back is decorated with what archaeologists are calling “teeth.” They look more like steps to me. Since this is the first example of this design discovered, its significance is unclear.

Other gold figurines have been found in this field before. The first was found in 2009. She’s the fifth and the only female.

The five figurines were probably buried in the same place, individually or collectively, at some point during the 6th century AD, i.e. the Migration Period.

Three of them were found within five metres of each other, while the other two were found 10-15 metres further away. Presumably it was the plough that separated them.

This location may have been chosen due to the presence of one or more springs.

Other artifacts, including figures made from cut and engraved gold sheets, have been found on the field. Believe it or not, the area has not yet been systematically excavated by archaeologists despite the very shiny incentive and the prospect of discovering more about a period that has very little in the way of documentary sources. Plans are in the works to rectify this.

Meanwhile, the four gold men and one gold woman are on display along with other treasures from Smørenge field at the Bornholm Museum.

Napoleonic semaphore telegraph recreated

If like me you are obsessed with The Count of Monte Cristo, you’ll doubtless recall the central role played by a telegraph whose operator was so ably bribed by the Count to cause a stock market panic and initiate the financial ruin of one of his enemies. The telegraph Dumas describes as “flourish[ing] its great bony arms” was a semaphore signalling system. Invented by Claude Chappe with the first line between Paris and Lille installed in 1793, the system featured relay towers placed no more than 20 miles apart from each other so they could be clearly seen by a human eyeball through a telescope. On top of each tower was a large horizontal bar with two smaller bars mounted at both ends. By turning a gear and pulley mechanism inside the tower, the operator could position the regulator (the horizontal beam) and indicators (the little guys at the ends) at various angles, each position signifying a different letter, number, syllable, symbol, common word

The operators did not have the key to read the messages. Their job was to transmit them as they saw them to the next station down the line. Only the superintendents had the code book which would allow them to translate the signals into words. This was a closely guarded military secret, and indeed the telegraph system was entirely dedicated to military and government uses in the first decades of its existence. (Yet another example of what a Batman-like badass the Count is: he knows the code.)

At its peak, the French network had 534 stations stretching over more than 3,000 miles allowing messages that would have once taken days to reach their destination in mere hours. The record was set when Napoleon’s son was born in 1811; the message got from Paris to Strasbourg in 60 minutes. Napoleon extended the Chappe telegraph system into conquered territories like Italy and Belgium and other countries installed similar networks of their own. It was the first functional long-distance communication system on the continent, although the Romans had come close with their relay fire signals. It had serious limits, though. Obviously it required good visibility, so no telegraphing at night or in bad weather, and it was almost impossible for a message to get all the way through the relays without transmission errors.

The The Count of Monte Cristo began to be published in serial form in 1844, the year Samuel Morse sent the message “What hath God wrought” through an electric wire from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore, but the telegraph bribery incident is set in 1838. By the time the last chapter of The Count hit the magazine stands in 1846, France was funding an extensive new electronic telegraph system. Chappe’s system spluttered along until 1852 after which it was abandoned. The relay towers were pillaged for construction materials or left to decay.

There are a few left today in France that can be visited by tourists. One of them, the station of Mollard-Fleury, near Modane in the Alps, was rediscovered in 2002. The mechanism was not functional, but researchers found the original designs made by a very meticulous inspector on the line and were able to make an exact copy.

Visitors who make it up the brisk climb find a two-room cabin of wood and stone. The second room contains a system of wheels and pulleys, controlling the signal system which is set on a mast above the roof.

A panaromic [sic] view looks south-east across the valley to more snow-capped mountains. Beyond is Italy.

“This station was part of the Lyon to Milan line that Napoleon built in 1805 as he prepared to resume war in Italy,” explains Bernard Pinaud, who over the summer will give demonstrations of the semaphore.

“Ultimately it extended as far as Venice, allowing the emperor to get messages to his armies in northern Italy in a matter of a few hours.”

One such message has been discovered in the records of a nearby village.

It reads: “The Legion of the South may recruit men in Turin from among the Piedmontese prisoners-of-war or Austrian deserters . However it must not recruit men who are not from Piedmont.”

Behold, the Chappe telegraph station of Mollard-Fleury in action:

Red Faun travels to US for the first time

A striking Roman statue from the 2nd century A.D. has crossed the Atlantic for the first time. On loan from Rome’s Capitoline Museum, the Fauno Rosso or Red Faun is now on display at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The museum has kitted out its Kirkwood Hall to look like a Roman palazzo with the Faun (it’s actually a satyr since it was originally Greek and it doesn’t have goat legs) as its centerpiece.

The Fauno rosso depicts a satyr, follower of Dionysus, the god of wine. The entire sculpture is of red marble, rather than the commonly used white marble, and seems to suggest that the subject is so drunk that his skin has turned into the color of the grapes. To his left is a goat that looks up at him and rests one leg on a wicker basket. The Fauno rosso’s eyes would have been of glass or brilliant stone (the sockets have been hollowed out to receive them) and would have been sparkling with life and energy.

Art historians believe it’s a Roman copy of a late Hellenistic Greek original, probably a bronze. Given its find spot — on the site of the small palace of Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, it’s likely the sculpture was commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian himself. The artists are thought to have been Aristeas and Papias of Aphrodisias who made and signed two other famous sculptures, the Young Centaur and the Old Centaur, discovered on the site and now also in the Capitoline Museum.

The Red Faun was unearthed by Monsignor Giuseppe Furietti, an antiquarian who secured digging rights to the small palace site, in 1736. (Furietti also found the Centaurs that same year in the same area.) It was far from complete. All that was found of the original Faun was the head, the nude torso, a partial left arm, the torso of the goat, some of the fruit on the draped cloak (called a nebris), one thumb and a fragment of the basket. Although Furietti had incurred Pope Benedict XIV’s eternal wrath when he refused to give him the Centaurs, he did give him the Red Faun. The Pope would donate it to the newly opened Capitoline Museum in 1746, but before it was ready to go on public display, it obviously needed a lot of work.

In 1744, Marchese Capponi, the first director of the Capitoline Museum, commissioned two young Roman sculptors, Clemente Bianchi and Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, to make a showable sculpture out of the pieces. Thanks to the Vatican’s most wonderful habit of hoarding all its paperwork, we still have the invoice showing what each of them did. They were both paid the same amount, but Bianchi was in charge of carving the hard red marble — a material chosen by the Romans for its expense and difficulty rather than its suitability for sculpture — while Cavaceppi made the preparatory models, casts of the missing pieces and polished and cleaned the finished product.

It was Cavaceppi, therefore, who would go on to become the premiere restorer of 18th century Rome, who designed and cast the base, arms, legs, the shepherd’s pipe to the Faun’s right that doubles as support for the trunk, the goat and the basket to the Faun’s left. The marble used for the new parts was a close match in color (although it had to be stained to match the patina of the ancient pieces), but it has very noticeable thick grey veins running through it. Caveceppi also deliberately added cracks and nicks to integrate the new marble into the old.

This process was not restoration the way we think of it today. With so many parts of antique sculptures coming to light (300 sculptures were found at Hadrian’s Villa alone), many of them inscrutable body parts — artists in the 18th century put them together however they wanted. The identity of the original statue, which person or deity it had represented, was not any kind of priority. Embellishments and reconfigurations, some of them highly questionable, were the order of the day.

In other words, we have no idea what the Red Faun looked like when it was made in the 2nd century A.D. or what the late Hellenstic bronze, looked like. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to see him in Kansas City, look for those grey stripes in the marble to distinguish between original and 18th century parts.