Panel leaves Antiques Roadshow estimate in its dust

July 6th, 2013


A Tuscan landscape panel made out of cut inlaid stone in the pietre dure (meaning “hard stone”) technique sold at Bonhams’ Fine European Furniture, Sculpture & Works of Art auction in London for £157,250 ($234,302) including buyer’s premium, five times the pre-sale estimate and more than 10 times the Antiques Roadshow estimate. Granted, its appearance on the original British Antiques Roadshow was several years ago and it seems the expert didn’t recognize how early a piece it is and the important artist who is thought to have created it.

Bonhams’ appraisers got a look at it when the seller brought it to a public valuation event at the Saffron Walden Golf Club in East Anglia. They recognized its excellent quality and likely Florentine origin. Further research by the auction house’s European Furniture specialists found the panel was probably made in the late 17th century or very early 18th century by Baccio Cappelli, one of the greatest lapidaries at the Galleria de’ Lavori in Pietre Dure, the Grand Ducal hardstone workshop in Florence which still exists today as the state-funded Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

The Galleria de’ Lavori was founded by Grand Duke Ferdinando I in 1588 to train local carvers to restore the many ancient stone objects the Medici dug up or bought and to create new hardstone works. The Galleria craftsmen pioneered the pietre dure technique. It started with a drawing from which paper cut-outs were traced. Various marbles and hardstones of different colors and textures were selected for each jigsaw-like piece. The cut-outs were then glued to stones so its outlines could be cut into the stone with a bow saw. Once every piece was cut, they were glued to a single piece of slate so the entire work could be turned over. The face was then polished to gleaming with abrasives.

In the 17th century, the Galleria craftsmen focused on decorating the San Lorenzo Medici Chapel, but within a hundred years the art form had become widely popular, with elaborate pieces commissioned by the aristocracy and nobility of Europe to adorn furniture like tabletops and cabinet facades. The wealthy would collect the panels, often purchasing them on the Grand Tour of Europe, and then have a custom piece of furniture made to display the stonework. Baccio Cappelli was the superstar of the fashion for pietre dure. His precision cuts, careful selection of stones and enchanting subjects put his panels in the great palaces of the continent and Britain.

This particular panel is not signed, but it is very similar in key details to signed Cappelli panels like the ones in the Kimbolton Cabinet, now in the Victoria & Albert museum. The overall compositions — a seaside landscape with little houses in the distance and people in the foreground — are the same. The clouds are made out of a similar translucent amber, the sea out of a similar olive drab stone, the clothes out of similar pieces of pink, blue and white marble, the tree trunks from similar black marble.

The Kimbolton panels are dated 1709. Bonhams’ experts believe the panel that just sold is older. Since the pietre dure artisans reused styles and designs, this panel may be a precursor to the ones on the cabinet.

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Thief steals 12th c. bishop’s ring; repents just in time

July 5th, 2013

On Monday, June 24th, staff at the museum of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen noticed there was a ring missing from a locked display case. It was a gold and amethyst bishop’s ring made in the 12th century which had been discovered in the cathedral crypt during archaeological excavations under the nave in the 1970s. Authorities were baffled by how the theft was accomplished. The display cases are custom-made, light-proof to preserve the artifacts and secured with an alarm system.

The ring’s monetary value is considerable but insignificant compared to its historical value. It was part of the episcopal regalia found in the graves of eight medieval bishops, a collection of rings, insignia of staff, silver chalices, mitres and vestments from the 11th to the 15th centuries discovered in remarkable condition. The vestments, among them a remarkable 13th century dalmatic (the richly decorated wide-sleeved tunic bishops wear over the robe) with an Arabic inscription on a trim above the seam which translates to “the mighty sultan,” were painstakingly conserved by historical textile specialists in Stockholm, and then the whole collection was put on display when the Cathedral Museum opened in 1987.

Concerned that the ring could be broken up and sold for the materials, the museum offered a 3,000 euro reward for its return, but it was absolution the thief sought. Just two days after the theft, a 47-year-old addict turned himself in for the theft. Remorse at having stolen from the finger of bishop who died almost 1,000 years ago drove him to contact a lawyer and confess to the authorities. He told them he had stolen the ring and sold it to a coin dealer in Bremen. If he told them how stole from a locked display case, that information has not been released.

Police served a search warrant on the coin dealer’s shop and found the ring. In two days it had gone from looking like this:

to looking like this:

Looks like that wave of remorse hit the thief just in time to stop this historical artifact from being sold as a scrap of gold and a light, cloudy amethyst. Obviously there was no plan to sell it intact on the antiquities market.

Police returned the ring to the Cathedral museum on Friday. Museum director Henrike Weyh says “The damage is great, but I think it can be repaired.” Experts will need to examine it further before determining how and when to attempt any restoration. The museum will spend the time wisely, by auditing its security systems.

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1,800-year-old stone head found in ancient dump

July 4th, 2013

Durham University archaeologists excavating an ancient garbage dump on the site of a Roman bathhouse outside Binchester Roman Fort near the town of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, northeast England, have discovered a carved stone head dating to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Extremely lucky 19-year-old archaeology student Alex Kirton found the small sandstone sculpture — it’s about eight inches high and four inches wide — in a layer of stone rubble.

The bathhouse had fallen out of use by the 4th century and the locals used its rooms as dumpsters. These rooms are filled with trash six feet deep, mostly in alternating layers of stone materials and butchery discards. Two years ago a small Roman altar was found nearby along with a partial inscription that appears to commemorate a shrine dedicated by the commander of the fort cavalry. Archaeologists believe the head and altar were part of this modest shrine built inside the bathhouse.

It’s not possible at this juncture to identify precisely who the head is meant to represent. The going hypothesis is that he was a local Romano-British deity. Binchester was a fort on the northern frontier and there were a number of gods unique to the area. One likely candidate is the god Antenociticus because the sandstone head shares some features in common with a confirmed head of Antenociticus discovered in 1862 in the Roman settlement outside Benwell, another northern border fort near Newcastle upon Tyne. The Benwell head was found in its original context, a temple dedicated to Antenociticus built around 180 A.D. Inscriptions indicate the temple was built by a Roman cavalry prefect to give thanks for a promotion, so Antenociticus appears to have had some kind of military purview.

There are marked differences between the two heads, though. The Binchester head has a flat base; it’s likely that the head was the entirety of the sculpture. Neck fragments from the Benwell Antenociticus indicate it was part of a larger, life-sized sculpture. Pieces of a forearm and leg were also found at the site. The Benwell head is also more delicately carved, as you might expect from an artifact decorating a full-on temple rather than a small household shrine.

The Binchester head also has facial features — mainly the modeling of the nose and lips — that may suggest an African influence.

The Binchester head is African in appearance, but Dr Petts, who is also Associate Director of Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, said experts were unsure whether these features were deliberate or coincidental.

He explained: “This is something we need to consider deeply. If it is an image of an African, it could be extremely important, although this identification is not certain.”

Dr Mason added: “The African style comparison may be misleading as the form is typical of that produced by local craftsmen in the frontier region.”

The features are also damaged and archaeologists can’t be certain exactly how they looked when new.

Binchester Roman Fort, called Vinovia by the Romans, was the largest fort in the county, housing a garrison of one thousand men, most if not all of them cavalry. It guarded the crossing point of the River Wear, a strategically important location about 60 miles north of the legion’s headquarters at York and about 30 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall. If you have the opportunity, head on up there the weekend of July 13th and 14th to see an exhibit of the newly discovered head as well as other artifacts discovered on site. There will be tours led by Dr. David Mason, Principal Archaeologist with the Durham County Council, and reenactments by Roma Antiqua and Legio IX including a working full-size model of a ballista, the torsion-powered catapult Romans used to fire artillery bolts at the enemy.

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Help recreate the Star Spangled Banner

July 3rd, 2013

The summer of 1813 was a tense time in Baltimore. The United States was at war with Britain and the city was poised for an invasion from land and sea. Fort McHenry, the star-shaped fort defending Baltimore Harbor, needed one last thing to be fully prepared for the British attack: a proper flag. Major George Armistead sought to remedy this oversight as soon as he took over as commander of the Fort McHenry militia detachment in June of 1813. He wrote to General Samuel Smith, commander of Baltimore:

“We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy. That is to say, we are ready except that we have no suitable ensign to display over the Star Fort and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”

He was not kidding. Armistead commissioned Mary Pickersgill, a local flag maker with a well-established business making flags and signals for military and merchant ships (she also happened to be the sister-in-law of Commodore Joshua Barney, commander of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla) to make two flags. One was a 17 x 25-foot storm flag that could tolerate inclement weather, and the other a whopping 30 x 42-foot garrison flag to be made of top quality woolen bunting. This was a huge job and Pickersgill had a very short deadline since Armistead wanted the flags ready to go as soon as possible. She enlisted the aid of her 13-year-old daughter Caroline, her nieces Eliza and Margaret Young, then just 13 and 15 respectively, Grace Wisher, an African-American apprentice, and possibly Pickersgill’s mother, Rebecca Young, herself an accomplished flagmaker who was one of the first on record to make flags for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and who had taught her daughter the craft.

Pickersgill’s team worked relentlessly for six weeks making the flags. During preparations for the 1876 Centennial, Caroline wrote a letter to Georgiana Armistead Appleton, daughter of Major George Armistead and owner of the flag, describing their efforts:

“The flag being so very large, mother was obliged to obtain permission from the proprietors of Claggetts brewery which was in our neighborhood, to spread it out in their malt house; and I remember seeing my mother down on the floor, placing the stars: after the completion of the flag, she superintended the topping of it, having it fastened in the most secure manner to prevent its being torn away by (cannon) balls: the wisdom of her precaution was shown during the engagement: many shots piercing it, but it still remained firm to the staff. Your father (Col. Armistead) declared that no one but the maker of the flag should mend it, and requested that the rents should merely be bound around. The flag contained, I think, four hundred yards of bunting, and my mother worked many nights until 12 o’clock to complete it in the given time.”

It was an exceptional piece of work, hand-sewing such a massive flag by stitching together strips of wool (for the blue canton and white and red stripes; the stars are cotton) no more than 18 inches wide. It was at that time, and I believe still is, the largest battle flag ever made. It weighed 50 pounds and required 11 men to hoist.

The finished product was delivered to Fort McHenry on August 19, 1813. The urgency of construction turned out to be unnecessary. Britain had its hands full at the time with a certain upstart French fellow, so the expected battle only happened more than a year later after Napoleon’s abdication on April 6th, 1814. When the British finally did shell Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore the night of September 13-14th, 1814, they most certainly could see the garrison flag withstand the punishing assault, just as Armistead had wanted.

Lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key was negotiating prisoner exchanges aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant in Baltimore Harbor during the British attack. They wouldn’t let him leave the ship lest he reveal their position until the shelling was done, so he spent the night and awoke to find Pickersgill’s giant flag was still there. He immortalized that sight in a poem called Defence of Fort McHenry (pdf) which would be set to a British drinking song and become the national anthem as The Star Spangled Banner.

This summer marks the 200th anniversary of the creation of the Fort McHenry garrison flag and the Maryland Historical Society has a plan to celebrate it in grand style. Starting the Fourth of July, more than 150 volunteers are coming together to hand-stitch an exact replica of the Star Spangled Banner in the same six-week time frame as the original. (It’s a testament to the skill and speed of Mary Pickersgill’s team that it takes 150 adults to accomplish today what she did with three teenagers and a couple of assistants.) The first stitch will be stitched in a ceremony at Fort McHenry after which visitors will be able to see the team hard at work in the Fort McHenry Education Center until 4:00 PM.

The original is in the Smithsonian in an extremely delicate state of conservation. It will be great to have a hardy replica so the massive beastflag can yet wave. This is not a cheap project — the 275 yards of wool bunting alone cost $9,625 — and the Maryland Historical Society could use some help defraying costs. They’ve created a Kickstarter project with a goal of raising $10,000 by the end of the month. They’ve raised just over a thousand dollars over the past few days so donate and spread the word.

The Kickstarter has a lot of nerdy perks for donors, but the best of all perks is free. If you’re in Maryland on August 3rd or August 11th, go to the Maryland Historical Society’s workroom in France Hall between noon and 3:00 PM to put your own stitch in the flag.

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Sutton Hoo exhibit on Google Cultural Institute

July 2nd, 2013

Expanding its online databases of cultural treasures, Google has added online museum archive exhibits to a portfolio that already includes the hugely successful Google Art Project and Google Street View’s tours of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Archive Exhibitions are designed by museum curators and experts who collect images and video from their institutions’ archives, caption them and create an online display.

British Museum curators have put together a beautiful tour of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo. It’s structured as a timeline, starting with the discovery in 1939. There are period pictures of the ship as it was revealed, digital reconstructions of the artifacts, maps, black and white video of the excavation and video of the artifacts today. The British Museum website has an excellent set of pictures of the Sutton Hoo treasures, but the Google Cultural Institute exhibit lays out the history of the dig and the artifacts in a crisp, easy-to-follow structure that includes multimedia elements and, best of all, highly zoomable images.

Once you’ve enjoyed your journey through the funerary riches of Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, check out the rest of the museum collections. This one from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum features photographs of Holocaust victims found in the property sorting area after liberation. They give a deeply moving glimpse into the family life of Polish Jews before the war. The Imperial War Museums has two World War II exhibits, one telling the stories of the Kindertransport, the evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied territories, and the other about D-Day.

On a more lighthearted topic, the Instituto Luce Cinecitta’ has a wonderful collection of photographs of Italy in the heady Dolce Vita days of 1954-1965. It’s not just about Fellini and the dawn of the paparazzi; it’s also about the booming post-war economy and Italy’s dive into consumerism, Fiat 500s. There’s a great period newsreel of the first supermarket opened in the Roman suburb of EUR (where I grew up!).

Also not to be missed are the exhibitions from the Museo Galileo in Florence. One focuses on the Medici collections of scientific instruments. As always with the Medici, the objects are as beautiful and luxurious as they are important in the history of science. The other covers the Lorraine collection which was built on the Medici core after the House of Lorraine inherited the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1737. The Museo Galileo is a garden of earthly delight for combo science and history nerds. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to explore its collections in this kind of detail. Also, I want Grand Duke Peter Leopold’s chemistry cabinet. Badly.

New museums and exhibits are added all the time, so be sure to keep an eye on the Google Cultural Institute.

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La Rochelle’s 15th c. city hall devastated by fire

July 1st, 2013

The beautiful and historical city hall of La Rochelle, parts of which date to the late 15th century, was devastated by a fire that devoured the building from around 2:00 PM Friday to 5:00 AM Saturday when the firefighters were able to extinguish it. The hundred or so employees working in the building were all evacuated safely. Only one person was injured: a firefighter briefly hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Most of the contents of the building — furniture, art, historical artifacts — were rescued in time, including pieces of great historical significance like a death mask of King Henry IV, the mayor’s chair dating to 1628 and the first great seal of the city which dates to 1199.

The building itself, on the other hand, a listed historical monument since 1861, has been severely damaged. The Renaissance roof over the great banquet hall and the hall of the municipal council was burned to cinders and collapsed. The heat was so intense some of the masonry exploded. The interior has water and fire damage to cope with, especially the wooden floors. Bolstered by scaffolding in place for a current restoration, the façade now seems to be out of danger but will take detailed examination to ensure there are no unseen structural problems.

According to mayor Maxime Bono “Nothing irreplaceable was lost. We may be able to recover the wood flooring in the banquet hall which is the heart of the area most affected by the fire. A part of the structure corresponding to about 50% of the total surface area has not been damaged and will be returned to service within the week.” After the debris is cleaned, the collapsed roof will be covered with temporary metal sheeting to help protect the interior and the masonry from further damage from exposure to the elements.

The mayor is not entirely upbeat. He said it will take at least two to three years and dozens of millions of euros to repair what was destroyed, and I suspect that rough time estimate will turn out to have been overly generous. Also, administrative documents were lost, which means a lot of people are going to have a lot of paperwork to fill out all over again.

There are conflicting reports on where the fire originated. It appears to have started somewhere on the second floor, possibly in the archives room, possibly in the banquet hall. The cause is also unknown at this point, but an accidental short circuit in an electrical panel is the top theory right now.

La Rochelle’s city hall is a combination of Renaissance and Gothic styles. The now-destroyed wooden roof over the great hall and council hall was built during the early 16th century. Although it could easily be mistaken for a chateau, it is not an appropriated aristocratic palace; the building was deliberately constructed to house the city government which has worked out of this office for eight centuries. The arched galleries within, the painted ceilings, the castle-like design of the building complete with turrets and crenelations have earned it a reputation as one of the most beautiful city halls in France.

La Rochelle is justifiably proud of its history and the many historical buildings that have survived some very hard centuries. The western French city on the Bay of Biscay has been at the center of epic battles from the Hundred’s Year War through World War II, most famously during the French Wars of Religion. La Rochelle was a Hugenot center, so much so that in 1568 it declared itself an independent Calvinist Republic. It was besieged by French naval forces in 1572-1573 and successfully held out until the Edict of Boulogne, also known as the Peace of La Rochelle, stopped that round of wars in July 1573.

That’s not the most famous siege of La Rochelle. Alexandre Dumas saw to it that the siege of 1627–1628 would overshadow the one 50 years earlier by making it the setting for a good piece of the action and much of the political intrigue in The Three Musketeers. Remember how they ate breakfast on the battlements while being pummeled by Hugenot artillery? Spoiler: the Musketeers (ie, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu) won.

Here are a couple of videos of the fire that will depress you. View of the interior after the fire and crews rescuing the contents:

External views of the building at various points in the conflagration:

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Michelangelo’s prisoner graffiti

June 30th, 2013

Spurred by the horrors of the Sack of Rome, in 1527 Florentines revolted against their Medici rulers and established a self-governing Republic. Even as a Republic Florence maintained the pre-existing Medici alliance with France, Venice and Pope Clement VII (born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici) against the Imperial forces of Charles V. The League of Cognac, as the alliance was named, survived another two years until Pope Clement and the Republic of Venice signed the Treaty of Barcelona in June of 1529. Francis I of France wasn’t far behind. He signed the Treaty of Cambrai (aka, the Peace of the Ladies because both sides were represented by women in the negotiations, Francis by his mother Louise of Savoy and Charles by his aunt Margaret of Austria) in August of 1529.

That left Florence the sole power in Italy fighting the combined armies of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. On October 24th, 1529, Imperial troops laid siege to the city of Florence. The city was not caught unprepared. There had been rumblings since before the treaties that Pope Clement was willing to partner with Charles V if he could get Florence back for his family. The city government decided to implement defense plans from the 1526 Medici administration and created a committee, the Nine of the Militias, to work on city fortifications. Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of the Nine and was soon appointed “governor and general prosecutor of fortifications.”

His military plans were ambitious, to put it mildly. Michelangelo’s architectural endeavors had a tendency towards grandiose vision which inevitably failed to come to fruition when the money dried up and technological obstacles could not be overcome. Only a few scattered pieces of his large, complex designs were ever built, and none of them have survived. There’s a beautiful design of his fortifications for the Porta al Prato di Ognissanti, one of the city gates, in the permanent collection of Florence’s Casa Buonarroti museum which was until yesterday on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

That’s not to say Michelangelo was paralyzed by his own ambition. He set to work on smaller, more practical tasks like adding observation bastions to all the gates and strengthening the city walls with embankments. He managed to measurably improve Florence’s defenses, particularly the strategically important bell tower and hill of San Miniato, despite his own forays into the implausible and the constant interference of his enemies in government. Perhaps the government’s biggest mistake was to appoint Malatesta Baglioni chief commander of Florence’s military. Michelangelo questioned his fidelity, having seen first hand his lazy, desultory efforts in the reinforcement of the city.

Michelangelo was right. Baglioni was a traitor from minute one, surrendering Perugia right off the bat without even an attempt at defense. Michelangelo tried to alert the government that Baglioni could not be trusted, but they blew him off. On September 21st, 1529, Michelangelo fled Florence for Venice, his ultimate destination France. The Florentine government declared him an outlaw and confiscated his property, but promised they’d let him off the hook if he came back. He returned on November 20th, just under one month into the siege.

The siege of Florence lasted ten long months. Florence’s military, led by great warrior and national hero Francesco Ferruccio, fought an impressively good fight against Imperial might, but he was broken in the end by a debilitating fever that interrupted his surprise attack, by the short-sightedness and petty conflicts of Florentine government, and by the traitor Malatesta Baglioni who kept the city militia from reinforcing Ferruccio’s men at a key moment. On August 10th, 1530, Florence surrendered.

Despite political protections included in the articles of surrender, the Pope immediately got to work arresting and prosecuting Republican patriots. In just one day in October, five anti-Medici citizens were tortured and decapitated. Finally Charles V had to intervene to stop the papal bloodbath. Alessandro de’ Medici, ostensibly the son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici but widely thought to have been the illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII himself, was installed as ruler of Florence.

Michelangelo had good reason to fear for his own life in this atmosphere. He had opposed the Medici, was one of the Nine, had actively fought against the winning side, and there were false rumors that he had proposed to destroy the Medici palace in which his beloved patron Lorenzo the Magnificent had once entertained him and build in its place the Piazza of the Mules, named after the preponderance of bastards in the Medici line. So he went into hiding for three months.

It was some good hiding, too. For centuries nobody knew where he had gone. Contemporary biographers like artist Ascanio Condivi and historian Benedetto Varchi said he hid in the house of a friend. Michelangelo’s great-grandnephew Filippo Buonarroti thought he had squirreled himself away in the bell tower of San Nicolo’ church. Michelangelo left his mysterious spiderhole in November after the Pope’s retribution fury abated and he let it be known that he would pardon the artist if he would go back to working on the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy of the basilica of San Lorenzo.

The kicker is Michelangelo only had to walk up a few steps to go from his well-concealed hiding place to resuming his work on the statuary of the Medici Chapel. For those three months, Michelangelo had hidden in a small corridor underneath the New Sacristy. A cramped space just 23 feet long and 6.5 feet wide, this unknown room, which he had doubtless encountered during his earlier work on the Medici tombs, was his solitary confinement prison for three months.

It’s a testament to what a great hidey-hole it was that the corridor wasn’t discovered until 1975 when structural work was being done underneath the Medici Chapel. How did they know it was his 1530 hiding place? Well, what’s a man like Michelangelo to do with nothing but four blank walls to stare at for three months? Make them not blank, of course.

This incredible testimony of a scary, dangerous time in the master’s life has remained almost as secret since its discovery as it was in the centuries preceding. Paolo Dal Poggetto, the director of the Museum of the Medici chapels at the time of the find, decided not to open the small space to the public. The delicate charcoal drawings could not withstand the crush of breathing, sweating, coughing humanity. As always in Italy, it is possible to see them if you know who to ask and plan far ahead, but those are one-off visits. For everyone else in the world, the corridor is now and will remain off-limits.

Thanks to a new multimedia project, high resolution images and video of the drawings will now be viewable by visitors to the Bargello Museum, the Galleria dell’Accademia and in the Basilica of San Lorenzo itself.

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Update: three treasures go home

June 29th, 2013

I have happy endings to report for two stories: the Chinese bronze rat and rabbit heads and the William the Conqueror silver penny have all returned to their homes.

The Chinese bronzes had the most eventful journey there and back again. They were part of a fountain clock built in 1759 on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. All 12 heads, representing the animals of the Chinese horoscope, were looted by Anglo-French troops when they sacked the palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The bronze heads became symbols of China’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers and the government has been keen to retrieve them. Five heads haven’t been seen since, while the others turned up over the years at various European auctions where all but two of them were secured either by the state-owned Poly Group or by wealthy collector Stanley Ho who donated them to Chinese museums.

The rat and the rabbit wound up in the insanely cluttered home of Yves Saint Laurent and his long-time companion Pierre Bergé. The latter attempted to sell them at a Christie’s auction in 2009 but controversy ensued and he wound up having to keep them. Somewhere between then and April of this year, François-Henri Pinault, billionaire CEO of Kering, the holding company that owns many luxury brands including Christie’s, bought the rat and rabbit. During a diplomatic visit to China attended by captains of French industry, Pinault announced that he would to return the bronze sculptures to China as a gesture of respect and friendship. He took pains to emphasize that this was a private gift from his family, not a repatriation from Christie’s, and said the official transfer would occur in the second half of this year.

He didn’t waste any time. Less than two weeks after the half-year mark, on Friday, June 28th, 2013, François-Henri Pinault and his father François returned the statues to China in a ceremony at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and François Pinault lifted red velvet covers from the bronzes with a flourish and both sides exchanged flattery. Francois-Henri Pinault said:

“This act represents the affection and respect of the Pinault family for the people of China. For my family it is above all a contribution to the promotion of art, and the preservation of an important cultural heritage. We always have the desire to accompany our enterprises with gestures and actions not necessarily economic or financial, but environmental or in the artistic domain. By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation. They now return to their old home, Beijing.”

Chinese Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie said: “This gesture is an expression of deep friendship with the Chinese people.” He thanked the Pinault family for this “act of respect for and protection of China’s cultural heritage” and expressed hope that it would encourage other wealthy businessmen desperate to curry favor with the Chinese government so as to get greater access to the country’s immense buying power to donate other objects of Chinese cultural heritage. Okay, that phrasing is mine rather than his, but there’s no question of what dog the Pinault family has in this rat and rabbit hunt. They sell luxury Western brands and the return of China’s dispersed patrimony is a point of pride for the nation and its rapidly embiggening moneyed class. The PR they’ve received for this gesture is of immense value in dollars and cents as well as in reputation.

(Not everyone is impressed, mind you. This article from People’s Daily quotes several people who dismiss the bronzes as relatively low-value targets. The National Museum of China deputy curator Chen Lyusheng describes them as “water faucets made by foreigners” which while dismissive is pretty much accurate since they were fountain water spouts and they were made by Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, aka Lang Shining.)

The bronze rat and rabbit will be on permanent display at the National Museum.

The City Museum and Art Gallery of Gloucester, England, will have a local treasure of its own on permanent display starting July 11th. The city council has purchased the William I silver penny discovered in November of 2011 by metal detector hobbyist Maureen Jones in a field just north of Gloucester. They paid a very reasonable £2,000 ($3,040) for a coin that is one of a kind and a testament to the importance of Gloucester in the Middle Ages.

The silver penny was minted by William the Conqueror’s moneyer Silacwine of Gloucester between 1077 and 1080. It’s the only coin ever discovered that was minted in Gloucester between those dates. The discovery fills in a blank in Gloucester history and underscores the importance of the city in William the Conqueror’s day.

Council leader Paul James said: “We are a city with 2,000 years of history. This is a significant find of major historical importance and plugs an historical gap in local knowledge.

“It proves that coins were being minted locally throughout the reign of William something that we haven’t been able to do until now.”

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Police recover huge trove of looted Etruscan artifacts

June 28th, 2013

The Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a national police squad dedicated to investigating stolen art and antiquities) revealed on Thursday that they have recovered a massive trove of looted Etruscan artifacts. The stand-out pieces are 23 travertine funerary urns from the 3rd to 2nd century B.C., identified from their inscriptions as having all been stolen from a single Etruscan tomb in Perugia, in the central Italian region of Umbria, belonging to the patrician Cacni family. Most of the urns are decorated in high relief with battle scenes, tauromachia (bullfighting), friezes and representations of the myth of Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon so that his fleet could sail for Troy.

An astonishing 3,000 more artifacts were recovered in this sting, dubbed Operation Iphigenia. Other Etruscan pieces from the Cacni tomb include a sarcophagus lid from the 4th century B.C., a bronze helmet, greave, shield, strigil and an extremely rare bronze kottabos, a Greek drinking vessel used to play a game popular at feasts and symposia involving the throwing of the wine lees at a target. Not all the artifacts are Etruscan; police also recovered thousands of other antiquities and ceramic fragments from the Middle Ages.

Officials call it without exaggeration the greatest Etruscan find since the last hypogeum — the Cai-Cutu tomb also in Perugia — was discovered in 1982, and it came very close to disappearing forever into the black market before anyone knew the artifacts existed. In fact, seven of the 23 urns were already in private hands when the police tracked them down, sold by the looters through middlemen to collectors practiced in the asking of no questions.

Operation Iphigenia started two years ago in Rome with the confiscation of a small travertine head and a picture. A person known by the police to traffic in black market antiquities was attempting to sell an Etruscan urn. He was shopping around a picture of the urn and the little head, removed from the urn in a creepy kidnapper way to prove to potential buyers that he was in possession of the artifact. The head was examined by an expert at the University of Rome Tor Vergata who identified its likely origin as an Etruscan tomb in the Perugia area.

Perugia was one of the 12 major Etruscan cities and is rich in funerary remains, most famously the Palazzone necropolis, a vast network of subterranean tombs dating from the 6th-5th century B.C. onwards. The Hypogeum of the Volumnis is an elaborate family tomb containing a number of cinerary urns similar in style to the one in the photograph. With the collaboration of the Superintendence for Archaeological Goods of Umbria, police focused their efforts on finding the source of the pictured urn in Perugia.

Investigations kicked into high gear last February when Perugian court prosecutor Paolo Abbritti coordinated increased surveillance of several people in the construction industry thought to be connected to the traffic in antiquities. The construction guys turned out to be more than just involved in the sales; they made the initial finds during work on a villa 10 years ago.

Instead of reporting the discovery to the authorities so the site could be properly excavated and the artifacts claimed by the Perugia archaeological museum, at least one crew member and the boss conspired to keep the pieces for sale on the black market. (It’s a little looter karma that it took them 10 years to sell just seven of the 23 urns and got caught in the attempt to sell the eighth. Yet again, thieves find it’s a lot harder to make a killing from the illegal sale of antiquities than they imagined when they first looked at an ancient artifact and saw dollar signs.)

The 16 urns not in private hands and the other Etruscan artifacts were found by authorities still hidden in the tomb. The find site is now in the process of being excavated by archaeologists from the Superintendence of Perugia. They expect to find more subterranean tombs connected to the Cacni chamber so this one discovery, already so hugely significant, is likely to lead to even more.

Five men have been arrested and charged for the looting and trafficking. One is the construction firm owner, another a construction worker and three middlemen who arranged the sales. It sure would be nice if those seven jerks who bought the urns felt the sharp kiss of the legal lash, but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda right now.

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First unlooted Wari royal tomb found in Peru

June 27th, 2013

A team of Polish and Peruvian archaeologists have discovered a 1,200-year-old royal mausoleum from Peru’s Wari civilization which has never been looted. Wari tombs with precious grave goods have been found before, but this is the first untouched Wari tomb that bears the marks of royalty. The site surrounding the royal burial chamber in El Castillo de Huarmey, four hours north of Lima, was not so fortunate — it had been looted repeatedly over years — but the royal mausoleum was buried under 30 tons of stone fill which kept it safe from intruders.

Maintaining that unbroken record was the first priority of the archaeological team. University of Warsaw archaeologist Milosz Giersz suspected there was a tomb on the spot when he saw the outline of it from in aerial photographs in June of 2010. Last September, the team found a room with a stone throne; underneath it was the thick stone fill. After doing what no looters had ever bothered to do, ie, dig deep into the fill, archaeologists found a large carved wooden mace and recognized it immediately as a tomb marker. They kept digging through the fill until they unearthed the mausoleum.

The team found row after row of bodies wrapped in decaying traditional textiles made from llama wool and posed in a seated position. In three small adjacent chambers they discovered the human remains of three Wari queens buried with their valuables. When Giersz from the University of Warsaw saw the glint of gold in the tomb, he realized they would have to keep the discovery secret for the duration of the excavation or the place would be picked clean by human vultures.

Somehow they managed to keep the news from leaking for months as they unearthed more than a thousand artifacts. They found silver and gold jewelry, semi-precious stone beads, bronze ritual axes, silver bowls, knives, richly decorated ceramics, an alabaster drinking cup which is the only one of its kind ever found at an ancient Andean site, carved wooden artifacts that survived in exceptional condition and my personal favorite, gold weaving tools kept in a cane box. Royal women couldn’t be expected to weave cloth with just regular tools, now could they? No, they wove with gold tools. I love that combination of practicality and luxury.

A total of 63 bodies, most of them female, were buried in the mausoleum. The three with their own chambers were royalty, 54 of the others were probably high-ranking nobility. The six remaining were not buried seated or wrapped in textiles with expensive grave goods. They were deliberately placed on top of the other burials in curious poses. Archaeologists believe they were human sacrifices.

But for archaeologists, the greatest treasure will be the tomb’s wealth of new information on the Wari Empire. The construction of an imperial mausoleum at El Castillo shows that Wari lords conquered and politically controlled this part of the northern coast, and likely played a key role in the downfall of the northern Moche kingdom. Intriguingly, one vessel from the mausoleum depicts coastal warriors battling axe-wielding Wari invaders.

The Wari also waged a battle for the hearts and minds of their new vassals. In addition to military might, they fostered a cult of royal ancestor worship. The bodies of the entombed queens bore traces of insect pupae, revealing that attendants had taken them out of the funerary chamber and exposed them to the air. This strongly suggests that the Wari displayed the mummies of their queens on the throne of the ceremonial room, allowing the living to venerate the royal dead.

Analysis of this discovery has barely begun. Giersz expects his team to be studying the find for at least a decade.

The Wari civilization flourished in much of today’s Peru between 600 and 1100 A.D. Their territory covered almost the entire length of modern Peru and reached more than halfway inland. Their capital city Huari had a population of 40,000 at a time when Paris had a population of 25,000. Since few Wari remains have been found with their original context intact, we don’t know a great deal about the Wari. This tomb is therefore of immense importance to archaeologists as it will reveal much new information about Wari society.

For more pictures of the find, see this National Geographic photo gallery.

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