The Maltese Falcon sells for $4,085,000

The Maltese Falcon sold for $3,500,000 ($4,085,000 including buyer’s premium) at a Bonhams auction in New York today. It was part of a sale of movie memorabilia curated in conjunction with the eminent film nerds of the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, source of all high-density bottlenecks on my DVR. This particular falcon was one of two surviving lead props made for the classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart as Dashiell Hammett’s private investigator Sam Spade.

When I first wrote about the sale of the iconic Black Bird, I mistakenly thought this example was the second lead prop made by artist Fred Sexton after the first was damaged during shooting. In fact, the one that sold today is the one that was damaged. It has a bent tail garnered in an epic incident on the set.

One of the Taplinger memos [, Robert S. Taplinger was Warner Bros.’ Director of Publicity,] mentions a significant incident during filming of the finale: actress Lee Patrick (as Spade’s secretary Effie, the woman who delivers the falcon to his apartment) dropped the statuette while handing it over to Bogart. Bogart pushed Patrick out of the way of the falling bird, but in so doing his own foot caught the brunt of the falcon’s weight, causing him to injure two toenails. The right tail feather of the falcon was reportedly damaged in the fall, and the damage is visible as Sam carries the bird out of his apartment at the end of the film

The stuff that dreams are made of, as Spade described the bird, was the star of the auction, but there were a number of other wonderful pieces. Leaf through the catalog to spot your favorite. I defy you not to swoon at the 1940 Buick Phaeton from Casablanca that was so prominently featured in the immortal final scenes of the movie. This is the vehicle in which Renault drives Rick, Ilsa and Victor to the airport. The “here’s looking at you” final dialogue between Rick and Ilsa takes place next to the car. It unexpectedly sold for $380,000, below the low estimate of $450,000.

On the less expensive end of things, I was charmed by a portrait of Harpo Marx as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy painted by John Decker in the 1930s. It sold for $9,500. Mary Pickford’s monogrammed Louis Vuiton trunk went for $2,600, a steal for vintage Vuiton with Mary Pickford’s initials emblazoned on the side while Mr. Vuiton’s were discretely relegated to the brass locks. It was a subtler time for high fashion.

It wasn’t just the older classics represented. Indy’s braided leather bullwhip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was bought for $8,000. A can of new! delicious Soylent Green, ostensibly the “miracle food of high energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world” but I get the feeling they might be leaving out a key ingredient, went for $1,800. It comes with a Soylent Green cracker which is actually a piece of painted balsa wood. Movie magic, y’all.

From the sexy days of pre-code silent films, the snake headdress and pyramid earrings worn by Theda Bara in the 1917 Fox version of Cleopatra sold for $28,000. I wonder if her impressive risqué snake bra has survived. It reminds of Princess Lea’s famous gold bikini from Return of the Jedi, only Theda’s version offers significantly less coverage.

My favorite non-Bogey lot is a 1929 nude portrait of Clara Bow painted by Hungary artist Geza Kende. The portrait was commissioned by a far more famous Hungarian, Bela Lugosi, when he was still treading the boards.

In 1929, Lugosi was touring the United States appearing in the play Dracula, soon to be optioned by Universal for a film adaptation. One of the audience members at a Los Angeles performance was the silent film star Clara Bow. Sound films had recently taken hold in Hollywood and Bow was anxious about whether her thick Brookyln accent would appeal to audiences. Having read in the press that Lugosi spoke his lines phonetically without knowing English, Bow was determined to find out more about the Hungarian actor. Bow biographer David Stenn describes their meeting: “Clara sat transfixed through Dracula, and when the final curtain fell, she made a beeline for Lugosi’s dressing room. ‘How d’ya know your lines?’ she immediately asked him. Lugosi, who still spoke no English, gesticulated that he learned from cues by other actors. Without further ado, Clara invited him home'”

Clara Bow was so game. I love her. Oh, and her accent is basically non-existent, to modern ears anyway. Here she is in 1932’s Call Her Savage:


The painting sold for $24,000.

First Maya fresco found in northern Guatemala

A team of archaeologists from the University of Valencia, Spain, and the University of San Carlos of Guatemala have discovered the first known Mayan fresco, a mural painted on wet plaster, near the archaeological site of La Blanca in northern Guatemala close to the border with Belize. All the other extant wall paintings done by the Maya were created using a dry paint technique. These frescoes date to the eighth century A.D., the Late Classic period, when they were painted on the walls of room six in Chilonche Palace. The room was sealed in antiquity, leaving the murals in exceptional condition while those in other rooms of the palace have faded to near nothingness.

“It’s an extraordinary discovery because of the information it provides, both historically and because of the pictorial technique and from an artistic point of view they are exceptional. There are three aspects [to this find]: the history, the pictorial technique and the artistic excellence; the great plasticity of the figures, the colors and also for the good state of conservation, very good for a site in tropical conditions, said Cristina Vidal, [scientific director of the archaeological project].

The Maya used natural pigments to create the brilliant colors of their murals. The most famous is Maya blue, still being studied today by scientists keen to understand how its components, mainly indigo and a white clay mineral called palygorskite, came together to create such a rich and durable pigment. The newly discovered frescoes include some Maya blue elements. The dominant color is a red made by mixing ground up iron oxide with water. The white background was made with white lime, the blacks and greys with charcoal and the yellow with the mineral goethite.

There are adult men, women and children depicted in the murals, many of them labelled with their names. Identifying each figure’s name, date and any historical data is a top priority for the team. The paintings show people of all different types and classes bringing an offering to an illustrious personage of some kind. Archaeologists believe this is a historical event being depicted, not a mythological scene.

The Palace of Chilonche, while just 10 miles southwest of the archaeological zone of La Blanca, is on privately held land. This makes it basically impossible to police. The site has been looted on a regular basis and it makes protecting and conserving the finds a challenge. It will therefore not be opened to tourists any time soon.

Now off I go to check every Mayan mural post I ever wrote for sloppy use of the word “fresco.” I know it means wet painting, but in my eternal search for a varied vocabulary, I’m sure I used it to describe what I now know were exclusively dry painted works. :facepalm:

6,400-year-old remains found in Can Sadurní cave

University of Barcelona archaeologists excavating the Can Sadurní cave in Begues, 12 miles southwest of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, have found the skeletons of four people who died 6,400 years ago early in the middle Neolithic. Human burials from the same period have been found in the cave before, but they were not so well preserved. These four bodies — one adult male around 50 years old at time of death, one adolescent, a child aged three or four years old and another child of around five or six — weren’t even buried. They were placed in along the north wall of cave and appear to have been covered by a mild landslide shortly after placement. Their bodies had not yet decomposed, so they remained in position when the landslide hit and being covered up helped preserve them.

All four bodies were placed in a line about three feet apart from each other along the north wall. They were curled in fetal position and positioned on their right sides with their banks turned to the wall. Their knees were bent and pulled up to their chests, their arms bent between the legs and head. This position strongly suggests they were enshrouded or tied up because otherwise their bodies would have relaxed out of this extreme fetal posture. Preliminary examination of the adult skeleton found evidence of severe spinal osteoarthritis and a bone tumor.

Grave goods were found around the adult male, but not with the younger people. A vessel with two handles was placed on his lap and under his left arm near his elbow archaeologists found a polished bone pendant. Next to him the remains of a calf humerus and two goats were found, and the remains from a strong fire were as well.

According to its characteristics, it seems to be derived from only one particular episode which may have only last[ed] some hours, but powerful enough to create an ash layer. Although it is thought that it belongs to a previous burial, other campaigns had already identified in the cave other combustion structures that are contemporary to burial. That suggests that there is a relationship between combustion structures and burial rituals. To be exact, they might correspond to fires lighted to keep vigil over the death the day before their disposal inside the cave.

Archaeologists are excited to have discovered remains in such good condition because they might shed new light on the Neolithic the ritual burials that were ongoing in this cave for hundreds of years. Bodies were buried in one layer, then in a second layer after the first was covered with sediment and so on for more than two centuries. The top layer of bodies was displaced by a strong landslide, jumbling the remains and scattering them in the cave.

The particular death rituals of the Neolithic Can Sadurní community have already proven themselves to be of momentous historical import. In 1999, archaeologists found a pottery shard which was found to have traces of oxalate and barley-corn phytoliths. That means beer was held in that pottery vessel when it was whole, and its advance age makes it the oldest beer remains ever discovered in Europe. (It’s also a perfect illustration of how the archaeologist’s focus on collecting every little piece can pay off in a huge way.) It could have been a part of someone’s favorite beer mug, or perhaps the beer was part of the burial rites.

Last year, an anthropomorphic clay figurine was found just a few inches above the bodies found this year. It’s from approximately the same period, around 6,500 years ago, which makes it the oldest pottery ever discovered in the Iberian peninsula.

“Dueling Dinosaurs” fossil fails to sell

The fossil of two large dinosaurs frozen in what appears to be a combat posture failed to sell at a Bonhams’ auction Tuesday. This will doubtless gladden the heart of the scientific community which was dismayed that this unique specimen was being sold to the highest bidder instead of to a museum or institution of learning. The sellers, the owners of the Montana ranch where the fossil was unearthed in 2006, had offered it to museums but for ungodly sums (they asked the Smithsonian for $15 million) so they turned to the open market. The pre-sale estimate was $7 million to $9 million, but the expectation was this piece would blow past those figures to eclipse the standing record for a fossil sale (T-Rex Sue, sold in 1997 to the Field Museum of Chicago for $8.36 million).

Instead, the bidding stopped at 5.5 million which wasn’t even enough to meet the undisclosed reserve price. I’m sure the Smithsonian is discreetly hiding a little smirk behind its fan right now, especially since the next step is private negotiations with, you guessed it, museums.

“The story isn’t over,” said Thomas Lindgren, co-consulting director of the natural history department at Bonhams in Los Angeles, who put together today’s natural history auction in New York, which drew a crowd prospective buyers, curious onlookers and reporters.

“Behind the scenes, before the sale occurred today, I’ve had museums mention that they have difficulty coming up with funds this quickly, but should the lot not sell — which of course occurred — they want us to be in negotiations immediately,” Lindgren said during a press conference after the sale. “I’m very confident we’re going to find a scientific home for these dinosaurs.”

If the prices hadn’t been so ludicrously exorbitant, I’m very confident these dinosaurs would already have a scientific home. Apparently Mr. Lindgren had some concerns, unstated in the publicity rush leading up to the sale, of course, that this rare discovery of a herbivore (Triceratops relative Chasmosaurine ceratopsian) and a carnivore (one of only two examples of Nanotyrannus lancensis ever found) locked together would fall into the black hole of a private collection and be lost to science.

Lindgren said he had been guiding the sale toward the institutions and donors that would house the fossils in a public collection, adding that he wasn’t thrilled with the idea that they could “disappear to a private individual who would not make them available.”

There’s only so much guiding you can do when the sellers are looking to make $15 million, however, so its failure to get anywhere near the price tag they were hoping for will hopefully be the correction they need to make something happen with a museum or school.

Priscilla Catacombs re-opened and Google Mapped

The Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, an eight-mile network of warrens on several levels dug out of soft volcanic tufa used for Christian burials from the second century A.D. through the fifth, have been re-opened after five years of conservation. Restorers used laser technology to clean the wall paintings, a highly significant collection of early Christian iconography that includes the earliest known depiction of the Madonna and Child dating to around 230 A.D. and, in a room known as the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, a later third century depiction a woman with arms outstretched wearing what the Vatican’s Italian language website calls “a rich liturgical vestment” (the English version calls it “a rich purple garment”) which some consider evidence of female clergy in early Christianity. In the newly-dubbed Cubiculum of Lazarus, lasers revealed a fourth-century fresco of Christ raising Lazurus, still wrapped in his shroud, from the dead. This work had been obscured by centuries of grime.

The Priscilla catacombs are thought to have been named after the wife of Manius Acilius Glabrio, Roman Consul in 91 A.D. (the future emperor Trajan was his co-consul) executed by Domitian for atheism, ie, his refusal to worship the Roman gods because he was Christian. She had him buried in what was once a quarry and donated the property to the church so others could be buried there. It’s known as the “Queen of the Catacombs” because of the art work and because so many martyrs and popes were buried there. Popes Saint Marcellinus (296-304), Saint Marcellus I (308-309), Saint Sylvester I (314-335), Liberius (352-366), Saint Siricius (384-399), Saint Celestine I (422-432) and Vigilius (537-555) were laid to rest in the Catacombs of Priscilla, as were the following martyrs: brothers Felix and Philip, probably killed under Diocletian, their mother Felicity and five of their other brothers (Alexander, Martial, Vitale, Silanus and Januarius), Saint Philomena, Saint Pudens and his daughter Saint Praxedes. His other daughter Saint Pudentiana is buried next to her father, but there are no surviving accounts of whether she was martyred.

Such a rich connection to important figures of the early Church made the Priscilla catacomb a target of looters. That’s why it was forgotten for almost a thousand years, because, like many other catacombs at the time, its entrances were deliberately blocked and hidden in the sixth century to protect it during a period when Rome was being sacked on a regular basis. It was one of the first catacombs to be rediscovered in the 16th century, and then the local sackers got to work stealing tombstones, sarcophagi, tufa blocks and the remains of presumed martyrs.

Thankfully they left the paint of the walls, and eight labyrinthine miles are hard to completely strip of all their contents so when archaeologists began excavating the site in the late 19th century, they found around 750 marble fragments of funerary art. These pieces of sarcophagi and funerary inscriptions have been kept for a century plus in a space in the basilica of San Silvestro, a new church built over the foundations of a fourth century one in 1907. In addition to the conservation of the catacombs themselves, the project saw the construction of an innovative new museum to house these pieces. They needed restoration and they needed to be displayed in a suitable context, so a museum was built over what was still an open archaeological site.

They covered the foundations of the ancient church, which still contains many burials, with a pavement made out of panels of clear glass, metal gratings or imperial travertine. The clear panels cover the areas with significant archaeological remains so visitors to the museum can look down and see the ruins. The gratings provide air flow to the remains to ensure moisture levels don’t rise encouraging the growth of destructive vegetation and microorganisms. They also provide easy access for future maintenance of the archaeological material because they can be easily removed. The travertine was chosen because of its durability and because it is aesthetically in keeping with its surroundings. Its opacity obscures cables and other unsightly fundamentals of modern construction.

The Museum of Priscilla has its own website now and it’s actually good, something worth noting since so many archaeological sites have truly atrocious websites if they have any web presence at all. It’s only in Italian but it’s worth browsing even if you have to use an online translator. The videos do not have English captions but I still think you should watch them if only to see how the museum came together. It’s quite spectacular.

This video covers the process of museum construction from early rejected concepts to final execution. Watch it to see the space go from display room with a solid floor covering ruins protected solely by burial in sand into a floorless archaeological site into a handsome, multi-layer, non-invasive one-room museum.


This one describes the construction of the floor, the three different kinds of panels, their uses, why the materials were chosen:


Doesn’t that combination floor look great? I think it’s brilliant.

The following video shows the restoration of the 750 fragments. My quick translation of the main points: three restorers worked on the fragments for two and a half years. In the early 1900s, the marbles were affixed to the church wall with iron hooks and mortar. They needed to be cleaned of oxidized iron, cementacious materials and concretions accumulated over the centuries underground. The cement was so much harder than the ancient marble that removing it with power microdrills without damaging the marble was a great challenge. They had to use the smallest of bits to do the work. Once cleaned, the fragments were reunited using a special glue. The biggest surprise was the discovery of traces of the original polychrome paint. The figures of people were outlined in red. The fruit is fuxia (I’d call it a raspberry or a purple more than a bright pink, but I’m not there and the restorer is so what she says goes.) There’s so little left because “restorers” in the past scrubbed the marble raw with wire brushes (like the British Museum did to the Elgin marbles in the 19th century). In fact, the one feature all these fragments have in common is that their surfaces are thoroughly scratched.


Finally, if you’d like to get a more detailed view of the Catacombs of Priscilla but can’t make your way to Rome right at this minute, you can tour them on Google Maps! The whole eight miles haven’t been scanned, but you can follow basically the same route you’d take if you were there in person and then some. According to the Giorgia Abeltino of Google Italy, the had to build specialized cameras and instruments to take the Street View process underground, and it pays off. I’ve been in my fair share of catacombs and they are dark, y’all. The virtual tour is illuminated and detailed beyond my wildest expectations.