Site of Britain’s first proven gunbattle found

December 5th, 2010

Two fragments of handguns from Battle of Towton, 1461Metal detectorist Simon Richardson has found fragments of 15th century handguns and early lead shot on a War of the Roses battlefield in Yorkshire, north England. He was scanning the site of the 1461 Battle of Towton in collaboration with archaeologists who have been excavating the area for over 10 years.

The fragments of the gun barrels were made out of 2 different alloys of bronze and thus in all likelihood came from 2 different weapons. It’s eminently possible that they exploded in their shooters’ hands. Because of the poor quality of the castings and the copious bubbles and defects in the metal, early handguns were notoriously unreliable and prone to explosion when fired. The Battle of Towton would have been especially susceptible to exploding handgun failure because it was fought in the middle of a blizzard.

Archaeologists know of no earlier instance of guns being used on a British battlefield, or even a European one for that matter. Last year a pile of lead shot and artillery found at the site of the Battle of Bosworth made headlines because it suggested far more widespread use of firearms in a late medieval battle than was previously known, and Bosworth happened in 1485, almost 25 years after the Battle of Towton.

Experts at the ISIS Research Centre in Oxfordshire, which uses neutron analysis to examine samples in minute detail, said the finds were “unique in Britain”.

[Lead project archaeologist Tim Sutherland] said: “In terms of its rarity, we don’t know of any other battlefield where one of these has turned up.

“In terms of the Towton battlefield, it’s very important because we’re looking at the cusp of the use of archery and the introduction of handguns.

“When we analyse the internal coating, that has the constituent parts of gunpowder. It’s incredibly important and we still can’t believe we’ve found this.”

The bullet found is also of major significance because it’s a lead ball with an iron core, and thus the earliest composite lead bullet ever found in Europe.

Towton was reputed to have been one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on British soil. According to historical sources, in 10 hours of fighting, 28,000 men were killed. The archaeological evidence so far hasn’t borne this out. Tim Sutherland thinks that’s Yorkist propaganda rather than an accurate body count. The team has found several mass graves over the decade and a half they’ve been researching the site, and the numbers found suggest something more along the lines of 3,000 to 4,000 deaths.

The battle was a rout, however, with no quarter given to retreating forces, so bodies would have littered not just the field itself but areas radiating out from it.

Even without the bloody title, Towton remains a pivotal moment in English history. The Yorkist victory was complete enough to put Edward IV on the throne of England.

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Super creepy JFK assassination memorabilia for sale

December 4th, 2010

Lee Harvey Oswald's coffinFirst there’s this story about the coffin Lee Harvey Oswald was buried in being put up for sale. Allen Baumgardner was an assistant to the embalming of Oswald’s body at the Miller Funeral Home in Fort Worth, Texas. He was buried on November 25, 1963.

In 1975, lawyer, restaurateur and true crime author Michael Eddowes published a book that claimed that the man who killed Kennedy was a Russian assassin look-alike who had been substituted for the real Lee Harvey Oswald after the latter’s defection to the Soviet Union. Eddowes tried to get county officials to exhume Oswald’s body, running into a variety of obstacles. Finally in 1980 he persuaded Oswald’s wife Marina to authorize the exhumation privately. Robert Oswald, Lee’s brother, was not amused and got a restraining order to stop the exhumation. They went back and forth in court for a year, but Marina ultimately won and on the 4th of October 1981, Oswald was exhumed.

The examination confirmed his identity, and the funeral home, now owned by Baumgardner, gave Marina a new casket in exchange for the badly decayed original. Baumgardner kept the original.

“We placed Lee in a new casket, and I just brought that one back to the funeral home,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve had it all these years.”

He also kept the original embalming equipment and paperwork.

“I just think it’s time to do something with all that stuff,” the soft-spoken funeral director said. “I just felt like I’m 68 years old, I think this would be a good time to go ahead and see if anybody is interested in it.”

The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, a museum on the 6th and 7th floors of the Texas School Book Depository focusing on the assassination, will not be among the bidders. The auction is being held online and over the phone even as I type. The bidding is now at $15,863, but the reserve has not yet been met. The auction closes on December 16, so you still have time to score you a historical assassin coffin, if you’re in the market.

Also for sale at the same auction is Lee Harvey Oswald’s original death certificate, signed by his brother Robert as next of kin and the funeral director Paul Groody. When the Justice of the Peace brought it to the county registrar’s office he wrote “Shot by Jack Rubenstein” in the “Describe How Injury Occurred” field. However, since Jack Ruby hadn’t been convicted yet, he couldn’t legally be listed as the killer in the official document. The Justice crossed out the Jack Rubenstein line, then he decided to just fill in a new form to file with the county and kept the original.

JFK assassination limo seatBut wait, there’s more! How would you like a section of the leather seat President Kennedy and the First Lady were sitting on when his brains were blown out? It’s a center section complete with visible blood stains and everything.

[White House Technical Service Rep. F. Vaughn] Ferguson, whose involvement with the limousine before and after the shooting is well-documented, writes in part: “…The leather is from the automobile in which John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, was assassinated in on November 22, 1963…Four days after the assassination the White House upholsterer and I removed this leather at the White House. The light blue leather is from the center of the rear seat…The spots on the leather are the dried blood of our beloved President John F. Kennedy.”

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“Star Spangled Banner” first edition sells for $500,000

December 3rd, 2010

1814 first edition "The Star Spangled Banner"An 1814 first edition copy of the sheet music and lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner” sold for over $500,000 at a Christie’s auction in New York today. The pre-sale estimate was between $200,000 and $300,000, but the rarity of this piece drove the bidding way up. There are only 11 known copies of this edition, and the other 10 all belong to institutions, among them the Library of Congress and the Pierpont Morgan Library. This is the only one in private hands.

It was bound into a book in around 1820 along with sheet music from 48 other popular songs of the time. A note on one of the other songs in the binding mark it as belonging to Mary Barnitz of York, Pennsylvania, or her father George, brother of Revolutionary War hero Joshua Barnitz and uncle of Joshua Jr. The latter fought in the war of 1812 with the 5th Maryland Regiment and was himself a witness to the 1814 bombing of Fort McHenry, the star-shaped Baltimore fort whose shelling inspired Francis Scott Key’s immortal lyrics.

Key, then a young lawyer and amateur poet, is said to have boarded a truce vessel in Chesapeake Bay in an effort to negotiate the release of a detained American doctor, according to documents from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

But Key was himself detained overnight by Royal Navy officials to ensure their plans for the assault on the fort were not revealed to its defenders.

His vantage point aboard the British ship is said to have offered sweeping views of the ensuing battle, spanning the night of September 13 to the morning of September 14, 1814.

“By the dawn’s early light,” Key saw that the fort’s flag — torn and singed from near-constant shelling — had remained flying above its walls. The inspiring words later were put to existing music and printed by Baltimore music publisher Thomas Carr.

The poem was an immediate runaway success. It was published in newspapers and pamphlets as “The Defence of Fort McHenry” and circulated widely. Key’s brother-in-law set the words to the tune of another big success of the era: “The Anacreontic Song,” written by John Stafford Smith in the mid-1760s as a drinking song, basically, for a British gentleman’s club called the Anacreontic Society. (Here’s a YouTube of the Georgia Tech glee club doing a rousing rendition of the original.)

Detail of the heading with typo and author name omittedCarr capitalized on its instant success and rushed the lyrics and music into print by November 18th, making 2 glaring errors in the process. He neglected to put Francis Scott Key’s name on it as the author, and he subtitled it “A Pariotic Song” instead of “A Patriotic Song.” Shortly thereafter he issued an amended version which corrected the mistakes, but of course that only makes the first run with the typo more valuable.

The star-spangled banner itself, the 30-by-34-foot flag (the largest battle flag in existence) that survived a night of constant artillery shelling, is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. They also have an excellent online exhibition that covers the history of the flag and the song. Don’t miss the interactive zoomable flag with all kinds of facts about its history, damage and conservation.

On display at the star-spangled banner centennial, Baltimore, Maryland, September, 1914 Star-Spangled Banner today

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Degas stolen 37 years ago will be returned to France

December 2nd, 2010

"Blanchisseuses Souffrant des Dents," Edgar Degas, 1870-72The New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced today that a Degas painting stolen from a Normandy museum in 1973 will be returned to France. The painting, “Blanchisseuses Souffrant Des Dents” (Laundry Women with Toothache), was stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne André-Malraux in Le Havre by a person or persons still unknown, and then disappeared into the shadowy underground for 37 years. Last month a Malraux employee found it while flipping through the catalog of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Day Art sale.

He called the museum’s director and she contacted the French police and the ministry of culture. They in turn alerted Sotheby’s, which immediately withdrew the piece from the auction. Sotheby’s claims they had no idea it was stolen and same goes for the seller, New York orthopedic surgeon and collector of French art Ronald Grelsamer.

Grelsamer says he received it from his father as a gift. Sotheby’s describes him as “shocked” that it was stolen; he hasn’t made any statements to the press about the painting, much less about how his father might have gotten his hands on it. He actually has the right to file a claim for compensation from the French government, believe it or not, although the Sotheby’s estimate doesn’t put it in the astronomical Impressionist value range so hopefully he’ll refrain.

The 6.25-inch-by-8.5-inch piece — painted between 1870 and 1872 — has an estimated value of $350,000 to $450,000, the statement said, quoting the company catalogue.

The painting reflects a break from the academic focus of Degas’ early years when he dedicated himself to the “search for the essence of modern life,” said Sotheby’s spokeswoman Lauren Gioai.

“The 1870s gave rise to some of Degas most celebrated works,” she said.

The painting wasn’t in the Art Loss Register or any of the other theft recovery databases Sotheby’s consulted. There was, however, a stencil on the back of the canvas, “RF 1953-8,” marking it as the eighth work of art acquired by the French Republic in 1953. Also, the catalog entry mentioned the painting’s illustrious provenance, having been first owned by Madame Jeantaud, thought to have been a model for another work by Degas, and then by Carle Dreyfus, a well-known collector and one of the first curators of the Decorative Arts department at the Louvre. Upon his death in 1952, Dreyfus bequeathed the painting to the Louvre who put the registration marks on the back. That last step in the painting’s history, however, didn’t make it into the catalog.

André Malraux, France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs under Charles de Gaulle (1959–1969), loaned the painting to the museum because it was the first French art institution rebuilt and reopened after its destruction in World War II. The Degas was the first government-owned painting placed in the museum, so not only does it have immense cultural value because it’s a beautiful late period Degas, but also because it played an important symbolic part in the cultural revival of post-war France.

Malraux Museum director Annette Haudiquet expects the painting will return to France within the next month, but it hasn’t been determined yet whether it will go back to the Normandy museum.

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Three more walls collapse at Pompeii

December 1st, 2010

Collapsed stretch of garden wall ringing Pompeii's House of the MoralistFirst the Schola Armaturarum turned to rubble 3 weeks ago. Then on Tuesday a garden wall near the House of the Moralist came down. Today 2 more walls have crumbled, one along the Via Stabiana and another in the House of the Small Lupanar, one of the smaller brothels in town.

This most recent damage to these walls didn’t result in major structural collapse like what happened to the Schola. The garden wall near the House of the Moralist was a rebuild done after US bombers knocked down the ancient structure in World War II. The wall along the Stabiana was an unconnected stretch about 6.5 by 10 feet long; the House of the Small Lupanar lost a chunk of wall in a side room that was not open to the public. None of them were decorated.

The immediate culprit appears to have been continuing torrential rains. The pressure from the water buildup in the embankment behind the Schola overwhelmed its already shaky structure. Now it seems the rain has an agenda to test every wall in town, and since all of these walls have been a) volcanoed all over, b) shoddily excavated from the 16th century onwards, and c) copiously bombed, there’s not a huge amount of environmental pressure they can take.

Then there’s the politics of it all.

There has been an international outcry over the state of the UNESCO World Heritage site and opposition parties have tabled a no-confidence motion in Culture Minister Sandro Bondi.

The minister has pledged to set up a new foundation to better channel funds and manage conservation at the ruins, one of Italy’s most-visited tourist sites.

After the collapse at the House of the Moralist – so-called because of the strict rules of etiquette inscribed on its walls – Bondi also rejected “useless alarmism”.

The wall was not the original one, he noted, but put up after the war to replace the Roman structure wrecked by US Air Force bombing in September 1943.

But Italy’s Cultural Heritage Observatory said “this further collapse shows there is not a moment to lose to implement initiatives to conserve the extremely fragile site”.

Superintendent Papadopoulos said Pompeii is at constant risk from bad weather and all its uncovered walls could crumble if the recent spate of torrential rain continues.

A UNESCO team is due to arrive in Pompeii tomorrow to assess the conservation needs of the site, with a particular eye to identifying the most urgent threats and determining what measures should be taken to prevent any further incidents.

Bondi has announced the creation of a new organization where culture ministry officials and archaeological experts will work together to sort out how to better manage the funds Pompeii generates. The ancient city sees a million tourists a year and takes in $70 million. That should be enough to maintain the site properly so masonry doesn’t collapse 4 times a month, even when the month is an exceptionally rainy one.

His political opponents are not impressed.

The centre-left opposition was not impressed by the minister’s report and the two main groups, the Democratic Party and Italy of Values (IdV), announced their no-confidence motion aimed at bringing him down.

“Bondi has done more damage than Vesuvius,” the IdV claimed.

ICEBURN

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Retired electrician has 271 undocumented Picassos

November 30th, 2010

Painting of a handRetired electrician Pierre Le Guennec showed up at the Picasso Administration — the agency that administers his estate — on September 9 carrying a suitcase full of 175 previously unknown works by Pablo Picasso. Le Guennec claimed the artist’s last wife, Jacqueline, gave them to him as gifts after he installed alarm systems in several of Picasso’s houses, and that he had another 100 or so in a trunk in his garage. He had sent the PA pictures of some of the works in January, but they weren’t high enough quality for the experts to authenticate, so he brought them in for a live examination.

Drawing of a horseClaude Picasso, Pablo’s son and head of the Picasso Administration, didn’t believe him. At first he thought they were fakes. They aren’t signed or dated, but when the experts examined the pieces closely they found many of them were numbered using a secret system Picasso used and the collection displayed such an adept use of a variety of techniques to make forgery highly improbable if not impossible. So Claude grudgingly accepted that the works were authentic. He didn’t buy the gift story at all, though, and promptly filed suit for illegal receipt of the works.

Last month, French police raided the Le Guennec’s home and confiscated the trove. They arrested Pierre but released him shortly thereafter. They’re keeping the collection while they investigate the allegations.

“This was a gift,” Danielle Le Guennec told The Associated Press by phone from their home in the town of Mouans-Sartoux, near the tourist Riviera hotspot of Antibes. “We aren’t thieves. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

She said the couple decided to come forward with the works this year because they were getting on in years, and “didn’t want to leave any headaches to our children” with their own estate. Her husband had undergone a cancer treatment operation in March, she said.

The works, which were kept in a trunk, didn’t appear to be much to her untrained eye, she said: “But even if this was a little jot of the pencil, it did come from the master.”

“These aren’t tableaus like the ones sold in America.”

Claude Picasso, quoted in Liberation, noted that his father was known for his generosity – but that he always dedicated, dated and signed his gifts, as he knew that some recipients might try to sell the works one day.

“To give away such a large quantity, that’s unheard-of. It doesn’t hold water,” Claude Picasso was quoted in Liberation as saying. “This was part of his life.”

Olga AccoudeeClaude says his father was a bit of a hoarder. He kept everything from subway tickets to bits of string. The notion that Pablo Picasso would have given away such a huge number of his works is utterly alien to his established patterns of behavior.

Papier colle pipe et bouteille collageThe works were from his early, most prolific period, between 1900 and 1932. Among them are drawings, lithographs, portraits — including of his first wife, Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova — watercolors, sketches and models for some of his most famous works, a painting from his Blue Period, and 9 collages that were described by critics in 1912 as “painted proverbs” but were thought to have been lost when Picasso’s studio was flooded.

The estimated market value of this hoard according to the Picasso Administration is around $79 million. The Le Guennecs claim they didn’t want to sell them, just have them authenticated.

Nu AssisDrawing on a notebookDrawing on another notebookNature Morte Verre collage

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Yale to return Inca artifacts for real this time. Maybe.

November 29th, 2010

Inca gold pendant retrieved by Hiram Bingham at Machu PicchuYale University and Peru signed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday stipulating that Yale will return the artifacts removed from Machu Picchu by Yale professor Hiram Bingham III’s expedition between 1911 and 1915. All of the artifacts will go back by December 31, 2012, with the items in good enough condition for museum display to be returned in time for the centennial of Bingham’s finds in July 2011. The objects are to be housed at the University of San Antonio Abad in Cuzco and will be available to Yale scholars to study in collaboration with local experts.

The memorandum states that the center will be built with financial support from the Peruvian government. [University President Richard] Levin said Yale will work with the university in Cusco to establish a museum and research center dedicated to the artifacts, adding that details of the deal to found the center are still under negotiation.

Still, Levin said that the artifacts may return to Yale for short exhibitions of up to two years, as allowed under Peruvian law.

“We will be able to ensure that the objects will be well taken care of and will be accessible to scholars,” Levin said, adding that these are “conditions that were very important to us.”

The memorandum has yet to be formalized, however, and it’s not the first time Yale and Peru have gotten this far only to have it go up in smoke. The last time was in 2007, when after months of negotiations an agreement was reached that acknowledged Peru’s title to the artifacts but granted Yale rights to study and display some of the pieces in New Haven for up to 99 years. That deal fell through in 2008, followed by Peru filing suit against the university in a Connecticut federal court. Peru turned up the heat even further recently, taking to the streets in mass protests, threatening to press criminal charges and formally requesting that the White House intervene in the dispute.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even came down on Peru’s side this June, an interesting illustration of the changing attitude towards repatriation issues given that Hiram Bingham III was himself a Senator from Connecticut from 1924 to 1933.

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu in 1911Bingham is often described as having rediscovered Machu Picchu in his 1911 expedition, although really the locals had never lost it and even foreigners like missionaries and adventurers/looters knew about it decades before Bingham made his way there. He returned in 1912 and spent the next 3 years collecting thousands of artifacts like jewelry, ceramics and even human remains, all of which he brought back to Yale.

Peru claims the artifacts number over 40,000, but Yale says they only have 5,500, 330 of them museum quality. Peru says they were only loaned; Yale says all the loaned objects were returned in the 20s and the artifacts they still have they own legally. This was the crux of the dispute. If the memorandum of understanding gets the official stamp of approval, Peru’s ownership will be uncontested. We’ll see if new issues crop up over the number of artifacts.

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Mysterious medieval tunnel found at Lincoln Castle

November 28th, 2010

Medieval tunnel uncovered under Lincoln CastleArchaeologists excavating the ground level of the bailey at the center of Lincoln Castle have uncovered a previously unknown tunnel connecting to a circular structure. The dig is in preparation for the future construction of a wheelchair-accessible elevator that would bring visitors up to the castle walls.

The find is exciting not just because it might well have been originally constructed as a secret passageway, which is inherently awesome, but because it’s the only medieval structure surviving inside the castle bailey. The newly-discovered structure has been provisionally dated to the 12th century, which makes it one of the first stone buildings in the castle.

Lincoln Castle was built by William the Conqueror just 2 years after the conquest to consolidate his power. In 1068 it was just a wooden keep, but it was later replaced by a stone one. The castle has been built on and over repeatedly since then, so finding original stone structures is a major coup.

County archaeologist Beryl Lott described it as an exciting and unique discovery.

She said: “There are no other known surviving remains of medieval structures within the castle bailey.

“These excavations have discovered the remains of a substantial stone building with a circular interior, possibly the remains of a stairwell or room below the current ground level of the castle bailey.

“The room is accessed by a doorway, which leads into a tunnel in the direction of the central bailey area.”

Lincoln Castle saw a lot of exciting action in the 12th century, most famously the battle between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 1141. If you’ve read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, watched the sadly inferior TV series based thereon, or read the Cadfael book Dead Man’s Ransom, the First Battle of Lincoln featured prominently.

Stephen besieged Lincoln Castle where Matilda was holed up, but just when it looked like she was done for, her half-brother Robert of Gloucester charged in like the cavalry and won the day. Stephen was captured and Matilda garnered herself a short-lived spell — from February to June — on the throne of England. Who knows but Matilda might have taken cover in that passageway before her half-brother’s forces came to save her bacon.

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The Bastille: Living hell and 5-star hotel

November 27th, 2010

1789 drawing of "L'homme au Masque de Fer," the Man in the Iron MaskA new exhibit at the Arsenal Library branch of the French National Library called “La Bastille, or a Living Hell” is putting on display archives and artifacts of life inside the Bastille, fortress, prison and symbol of royal injustice whose destruction launched a revolution. The prison archives were thrown into ditches by the Parisians who stormed the Bastille on the 14th of July 1789. Nine years passed before the administrator of the Arsenal Library was able to get his hands on them, and there they remained generating surprisingly little interest for the next couple hundred years.

This exhibit is the first time the archives and artifacts have been gathered together for a comprehensive look at how prisoners in the Bastille really lived, as opposed to the fictional representations of revolutionary misinformation and propaganda. The high profile prisoners like Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade actually led a pretty cushy existence, complete with suites of rooms, their own furniture and dinner parties with outside guests.

Clothing belonging to prisoner DamiensEven the poor prisoners — forgers, printers, Huguenots — lived in far more comfortable conditions than prisoners in any other prison in Paris. They each had their own cells and the prison could only hold a maximum of 50 prisoners, so there wasn’t anything like the squalor and horror that characterized most prisons.

They were still in a 14th century fortress, though, locked behind 3 triple-locked doors, with highly restricted, censored communications and enforced secrecy. Prisoners were sent to the Bastille by secret order of the King. There was no trial, not even any explanation of the charges.

People were not put in the Bastille for crimes such as theft or murder. They were there for troubling the social order. This included Protestants, homosexuals, prostitutes, traitors, and anyone who dared say anything against the king or his reign — which meant most of the prisoners were authors, publishers and book peddlers.

Life inside the Bastille had its limitations, and communications with the outside world were strictly controlled. One prisoner sent a message on his handkerchief written out of coffee and soot, on display in the exhibit. Another smuggled his out in a cheese. One prisoner sewed a message onto a piece of cloth, claiming his innocence and asking whoever found it to help him.

“Secret is the word that defines this prison. Prisoners who left the Bastille would have to sign a register promising to never talk about the prisoners they saw in the Bastille or what they lived through,” Dutray said.

One story in the archives describes a terminally ill Protestant woman who was sent to the Bastille. Her daughter was allowed to accompany her even though the daughter was not technically under arrest. She remained by her mother’s side, hiding the truth of how ill her mother was from her captors to ensure she would not be forcibly converted to Catholicism, until her death. Once the woman died, officials didn’t want to release the daughter because she might talk, so they just kept her prisoner in the Bastille for a few years until finally sending her to a convent for the newly converted.

It was that secrecy which fed the rumors of torture and dark doings that would make the Bastille a symbol of royal abuse and a primary revolutionary target. When 8000 people stormed it on what would become known as Bastille Day, they found only 7 prisoners inside and a cache of gunpowder and weapons. They released the prisoners, dumped the archives, killed the governor and some of the guards, and the next day began to demolish the fortress itself.

Miniature of the Bastille carved out of stone from the Bastille (Carnavalet Museum).Today there are only a few stones of it left on Boulevard Henri IV, a miniature sculpture of the fortress carved out of one the building stones, a door and a few keys. Two of those keys are on display at the Arsenal Library exhibit.

Mount Vernon Bastille key, photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1944, LIFE magazineOne of them is part of the permanent collection of Mount Vernon. The Marquis de Lafayette presented the key to the west portal of the Bastille to George Washington along with a sketch of the fortress. In a letter dated March 17, 1790, he wrote “Give me leave, my dear General to present you with a picture of the Bastille, just as it looked a few days after I had ordered its demolition, with the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide-de-Camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch.”

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Half a stamp sells for $350,000

November 26th, 2010

Half of a postage stamp sold at an auction in Bietigheim-Bissingen, south Germany, for $347,500 yesterday. The stamp was issued by the Lower Saxony town of Syke in 1872, just a year after German unification. It’s not in mint condition or printed upside down or designed by Lawrence of Arabia. It’s actually on an envelope and postmarked. The reason it is so valuable is that it was split in two.

A spokesman for Gaertner Auction House explains:

“Stamps were in short supply in Syke between 1872 and 1874 so it was decided that they should be cut in half as a makeshift solution,” she said. “But because this was only done for a short period, very few letters actually bear these halved stamps.”

When they were created, bisects were worth half the face value of the whole stamp. Postmasters would divide less popular larger denomination stamps into fractions when stocks of the more popular cheaper denominations ran out. Sometimes it wasn’t just halves, but also quarters and eighths, as during Mexico’s classic period (1856 – 1874). People also split stamps informally and used them for the fraction of their face value and postal officials tacitly accepted them even when they were officially verboten.

Bisects and splits only have philatelic value if they are still attached to the envelope or postcard complete with postmark. If the stamp is on its own, there’s no way to tell that it wasn’t just cut up after it was used. Unlike many of the most famous rarities, for instance the Inverted Jenny, there is no such thing as a mint condition sheet of bisections.

The Syke bisect is both official and extremely rare. Only 3 of them are known to exist today, and this particular one is famous in its own right because it was on the cover of the definitive book on Syke bisects written by the felicitously named Rolf Rohlfs in 1982. Two bidders, one from north Germany, one from the south, went head to head for this special half stamp. The north German collector won.

Syke bisect, postmarked 1872

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