The Great Chicago Fire started 141 years ago today

October 8th, 2012

Chicago History Museum diorama of the Great Fire of 1871

Around 9:00 PM on Sunday, October 8th, 1871, a barn on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth Streets that housed Mrs. Catherine O’Leary’s five dairy cows began to burn. Despite the legend that would later envelop Mrs. O’Leary and her bovines in eternal ignominy, it’s not clear that the fire started exactly in her barn. It was either there or in the alley right behind it, however, and the O’Leary barn was the first building to burn in the conflagration that would kill 300 people, level 2,000 acres between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River and leave 100,000 people, a third of the city population, homeless.

It was Krypto the Superdog in disguise as a supercow who really did itThe story that she was milking an ornery cow that kicked over a gas lantern igniting the fateful blaze was a fiction dreamed up by journalists to give the story anecdotal specificity. It’s like when you tell a joke in the first person as if it happened to you; it makes the punch line hit harder. According to Catherine O’Leary’s testimony at the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners’ inquiry into the fire, she was asleep when the barn went up in flames. Her husband Patrick realized the barn was burning first. He woke her up, but by the time they got outside several houses near the barn were already on fire. Neighbors tried to douse the flames with buckets of water drawn from fire hydrants. They were unsuccessful.

Map of Chicago with fire zone in pinkThe summer of 1871 had been a scorcher. The high temperatures and drought conditions extended into the fall, and wood predominated in city construction. As every large city has found out, both before and after Nero sang the Sack of Ilium accompanying himself on the lyre, dry wood structures placed close together = raging conflagrations that cannot be contained by human effort. Add to that a strong wind out of the southwest, almost an hour’s delay before the first fire alarm was pulled, fire brigades slow to respond because they were exhausted from having fought a fire all day in Saturday, and human error in dispatching the firefighters to the wrong places, and any opportunity to control the flames before they spread was lost.

The fire split repeatedly, leaping in all directions, driven to terrifying heights by convection whirls that are basically tornadoes of flame caused by the clash of hot air meeting cooler air above and to the side. Witnesses reported seeing walls of flame 100 feet high devouring the city in sheets. So-called “fireproof” buildings like the building housing the Chicago Tribune were consumed as readily and thoroughly as working class cottages and tony north side mansions. The superheated winds alone set structures on fire even before the originating fire reached them.

"Chicago in Flames," Currier & Ives lithographWhen the Pumping Station on Chicago Avenue was flattened by flame at 3:30 AM, the firefighters lost their sole means of defense. The river and lake were no help. Even if access to them wasn’t blocked by fire tornadoes, they were bristling with flammable materials like wooden boats, debris and grease on the surface. The people, who had initially rubbernecked the spectacle of fire consuming downtown buildings like the opera house and the court house, began to panic once the fire leaped over the fork of the Chicago River to the north side. There were stampedes as people flocked to bridges and roads leading west towards Lincoln Park, the main gathering area on the shores of Lake Michigan for the homeless of all walks of life.

The fire kept burning through Monday. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, it began to drizzle. The light rain aided by weakening winds finally put out the Great Chicago Fire. This is what the city looked like when it was all over:

Panorama of Chicago after the fire

The O’Leary’s cottage on DeKoven Street never burned. They lived there until 1879 when they sold it and moved elsewhere. They moved again repeatedly, forever dogged by their association with the fire. Mrs. O’Leary died of pneumonia in 1895, to the last haunted by the unfair blame placed on her and her poor animals, all of which were burned to death in the fire except for one calf, an immense financial and personal blow to any working class family.

O'Leary cottage on DeKoven Street after the fireThe story had taken immovable root in popular culture in large part thanks to nativist bigotry fanned by a press that gloried in depicting her either as a clumsy, drunken Irish oaf or as a bitter parasite who lashed out at society when her benefits were cut off. Every year in October, reporters would track her down and harass her for interviews. When she chased them off without a word, they would publish scurrilous lies that her house smelled like a distillery and cow manure and that it had no front door and clothes stuffed in holes where windows should be. She never released a public statement and never had a single portrait done or photograph taken of herself.

The city of Chicago, on the other hand, rebounded with astonishing alacrity. Donations poured in from all over the country and abroad, and land speculators took advantage of the opportunity, much like Nero did, to snap up land and build grander, safer structures. Fire codes were rewritten to ensure the city would never be so vulnerable again.

1924 Chicago Day celebration featuring descendant of Mrs. O'Leary's cowEventually the story of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow lost the ugly anti-Irish sentiment that had underpinned it for decades. She became an innocuous mascot of sorts, represented by jovial impersonators in parades and floats. The location of the barn and cottage would become something of a shrine for Chicagoans. In 1960 a new fire academy was built on the spot, and the next year a bronze sculpture called “Pillar of Fire” by Egon Weiner was installed at its entrance.

To read much more about the Great Fire and the aftermath, including some truly gripping first-person witness accounts, see the Chicago Historical Society’s website dedicated to the fire. If you’re not in a reading mood, you can browse their excellent image gallery. The Library of Congress has a good collection of stereoscopic pictures of the city in ruins here.

I’ll leave you with Gilda exonerating Mrs. O’Leary and putting the blame on Mame where it doubtless belongs.

50 skulls, 200 jaws found at Mexico’s Templo Mayor

October 7th, 2012

Archaeologists excavate pit filled with 45 skulls and 200 mandibles in Mexico City's Templo MayorArchaeologists have unearthed 50 skulls and more than 200 lower mandibles in the Sacred Precinct of Mexico City’s Templo Mayor, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced Friday. The bones are estimated to be around 500 years old and are the largest single collection ever discovered in the Templo Mayor.

The skulls were found in mid-August in the course of construction work to create a new lobby entrance to the Templo Mayor museum. Archaeologists surveying the site before construction detected the skeletal remains behind a ceremonial structure called a cuauhxicalco. Further excavation revealed a cache of 45 skulls and 200-plus jawbones piled on top of a sacrificial stone. They were not carefully laid but rather appeared to have been thrown there in a haphazard manner. The border of the skull deposit area was lined with stones, then filled with earth. The layer dates to the Temple IV construction stage, between 1440 and 1469.

Skulls and mandibles in the pitSome of the skulls have cut marks indicating abortive attempts to create skull masks. The Aztecs made masks out of the front part of human skulls. They would adorn them with jade eyes and accessories like necklaces, rattles and obsidian knives. The skulls were not worn as masks. The eye sockets were blocked with decorative stones, so anybody attempting to wear one would not have been able to see. As representations of the death god Mictlantecuhtli, the masks were put on display as ornaments or used as offerings in rituals. Day of the Dead skull masks and sugar skulls in modern Mexico are the descendants of this tradition.

The skulls may have been exhumed before their ritual use rather than having been freshly killed. Preliminary analysis found that most of the skulls belonged to women and men between 20 and 35 years old at the time of their death. They were in relatively good condition thanks to the high moisture content of the soil, but the pressure of the earth fill and later construction on the site did fragment some of the skulls. Still, a good many of them are still whole and archaeologists are optimistic that they will be able to restore the ones that aren’t.

Five pierced skulls found under sacrifice stoneUnderneath the sacrificial stone another five skulls were found, all of them with large holes in both temples. These were likely pierced by a wooden stake and strung together on a rack, a monument called a tzompantli made out of the skulls of the sacrificed. Archaeologist Raul Barrera believes the tzompantli were buried beneath the sacrificial stone as an offering to consecrate the stone itself. Aztecs often used skulls in the consecration of newly-built sacred spaces, particularly ones relating to Mictlantecuhtli.

Sacrificial stoneThe sacrificial stone, against which sacrificial victims would be made to lean for the priest to open their ribcages and remove the heart, is 17 inches high, 14 to 17 inches long and 4 inches thick. The skulls would serve a symbolic communicative role between the world of living men, the dead and the gods.

Skulls from the tzompantli in the labUniversity of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who was not involved in the excavation, said it caught her attention that the skulls that had been on the rack, called tzompantli, were buried separately.

“It provides rather novel information on the use and reuse of skulls for ritual events at the Templo Mayor,” Gillespie said in an email. [...]

“We normally associate [the sacrificial stone] with heart removal rather than decapitation,” she said. “It ultimately gives us a better understanding of how the Aztecs used the human body in various ways in their ritual practices.”

First $5 bill issued in Fairbanks, given to Fairbanks

October 6th, 2012

Fairbanks, Alaska, June 1905
In 1905, just four years after the city of Fairbanks, Alaska was founded as a trading post by riverboat captain, price-gouger, embezzler and convicted swindler E.T. Barnette, the First National Bank of Fairbanks released the first national bank notes in Alaska from the US Treasury into circulation. Alaska wasn’t even a Territory at this time. It was a District, like a very large, very cold Washington, D.C., governed by federal appointees since 1884. Before that it had been under the control of the military. It wouldn’t be made a Territory until 1912.

The discovery of gold in the neighboring Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory in 1896 swelled the population of Alaska with prospectors and all the commerce that grows around them. It also made an old boundary dispute between the United States and Canada suddenly become a matter of intense urgency. The dispute was inherited from the days when Alaska was Russian. The terms of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1825 were vague and although Canada had asked the United States for a survey to resolve the issues back in 1872, the US refused, deeming it too expensive. One the Gold Rush began in 1897, it was too expensive not to decide once and for all the precise eastern boundary of Alaska and whether the entire panhandle, with its invaluable access to Pacific ports, should be United States territory or whether at least some fjords were Canadian. Canada in particular claimed the head of Lynn Canal, which would give them direct access to shipping from the Yukon gold fields.

Charles W. FairbanksIn 1898, the United States and Great Britain created a Joint High Commission to adjudicate the boundary dispute. Representatives from both countries met in Quebec City on August 23. One of the US delegates was Charles W. Fairbanks, at that time the Republican United States Senator from Indiana who six years later would become Vice President of the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt. The commission came close to reaching a compromise, but in 1899 the government of British Columbia rejected it. The boundary dispute would not be resolved until a 1903 arbitration tribunal in which the British representative sided with the US over Canada, ultimately resulting in a thaw of US-Canada relations and a frigid pall cast over Canada’s with Britain.

During the dispute, Charles Fairbanks met James Wickersham, a judge and Washington state representative. Fairbanks became a political patron of his. He worked to secure a federal judgeship for Wickersham in the brand new Third Judicial District covering Alaska in 1900. Wickersham wanted the job and had lobbied for it actively, so he was deeply grateful to Fairbanks for his help. He was packed and on his way to Nome in June of 1900.

Judge Wickersham in front of First National Bank Assay Office holding a giant brick of goldHis new district was 300,000 square miles in area with no paved roads. Transportation was primarily riverboat and dogsled-based, and settlements weren’t even legally allowed to incorporate into cities until that year. There was also very little in the way of US currency, and what there was of it was carried in from the lower 48.

In July of 1902, Judge Wickersham traveled to St. Michael, a trading settlement on the west coast of Alaska, as part of his judicial duties. E.T. Barnette was in town putting together a steamer he had bought in Seattle earlier in the year that was shipped to St. Michael in pieces. The two men met and struck up a conversation. Barnette told him about the trading post he had set up on the south bank of the Chena River the year before when his transport steamer ran aground on the way to the Tanana River Crossing. He planned to use the new steamer, the Isabelle, to take him and his cargo the rest of the way.

E.T. BarnetteWickersham was impressed with Barnette’s plan and told him that he should name his new Tanana Crossing trading post Fairbanks after the Indiana Senator. The judge told him that if he did, he would do his utmost to move the district headquarters from Eagle to the newly named town. Barnette, ever ambitious, liked the idea because if they ever needed a hand from Washington, it would be good to have someone with influence on their side.

Felice PedroniBy the time Barnette made it back to Chenoa City, he found his accidental trading post was suddenly prime real estate. An Italian prospector named Felice Pedroni (aka Felix Pedro), who had purchased much of his stock the year before when he was stranded on the riverbank, had found the major gold vein he had been looking for. Barnette abandoned his plan to move to the Tanana Crossing and instead staked some local claims and started making something permanent out of his post.

As word of the gold find spread around Alaska, people started pouring into the new town. The papers got wind of it in January, 1903, and the next gold rush was on. Barnette persuaded the settlers to rename the town Fairbanks. Judge Wickersham came to visit in April. He was not impressed with the handful of log cabins and tents, but he got a great deal on a piece of land courtesy of Barnette’s brother-in-law and also got two streets named after US Representatives.

Passengers with 2,800 pounds of gold dust leaving Fairbanks; notice the copious weaponsThe city was incorporated on November 10th, 1903, and on November 11th, despite having lost the election to John Long by five votes, Barnette strong-armed the city council into swearing him in as Fairbanks’ first mayor. In 1904, Wickersham followed through making Fairbanks the new headquarters of the Third Judicial District. He started the first newspaper in town that he typed himself. That November, Charles Fairbanks became Vice President of the United States. Gold production increased from $40,000 the year before to $600,000.

Fairbanks’ roll continued the next year. The city got a bridge, a hospital, a church, a local train and a bank. The First National Bank of Fairbanks was founded by Samuel A. Bonnifield, a famed Klondike gambler and casino owner known as “Square Sam” or “Silent Sam” for his reputed quiet, honest demeanor. The city was awash in gold — production would total $6 million that year — and the ever-expanding population needed currency. The First National Bank deposited money with the US Treasury and got thousands of sheets of $5, $10 and $20 bank notes to circulate.

First National Bank of Fairbanks $5 bill, Serial Number 1, frontThe bank saved the third $5 bill from the first sheet for a very special recipient: Charles W. Fairbanks. They framed the bank note and presented it to the Vice President. The bill was handed down in the Fairbanks family to the current owner, great-grandson Charles Fairbanks IV, who kept it on his wall for years. Its estimated value in the 1990s was $50,000 to $60,000, which was nerve-wracking enough, but when he found out last year that its market value had at least quadrupled, he took it off the wall and put it in a safe deposit box.

First National Bank of Fairbanks $5 bill, Serial Number 1, backNow he has decided to take it out of the bank and put it up for auction at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. The pre-sale estimate is $200,000 to $300,000 with a starting bid of $120,000.

As for the eccentric heroes of our story, both Barnette and Bonnifield wound up mired in fiscal shenanigans. Bonnifield got in trouble for attempting to evade banking regulations by setting up dummy banks. In 1909, all of the bank’s stock was sold to Barnette. Bonnifield had a nervous breakdown and left town, heading back home to Kansas to recover. He returned to Fairbanks in August of 1910 and was welcomed by the community who still held him in high esteem. In October of 1911, he withdrew a large sum of money from the bank, distributed some of it to laborers in town, then took the rest to the riverbank and played with it in the sand. A few days later he was arrested for insanity, found guilty and sent to Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon. He was released in 1914 and eventually died in Seattle at the age of 77.

Barnette purchased the Washington-Alaska Bank and the First National Bank of Fairbanks in 1909. He folded his own banking concern in with the other two under the Washington-Alaska name. Two years later, the Washington-Alaska Bank went bankrupt, leaving Fairbanks residents $1 million poorer. Barnette took $500,000 and slipped out of town. He was arrested for embezzling, but the trial was a farce and he was let off with slap on the wrist. He moved to Los Angeles, got involved with another woman, got dumped by his wife, and then moved to Mexico where he lived out the rest of his days in grand style.

Wickersham continued to serve as district judge until 1908, after which he successfully ran to be the sole representative of the District of Alaska to Congress. In 1912 the District became the Territory and Wickersham pressed for legislation allowing home rule. He got it. He was also instrumental in the creation of Mt. McKinley National Park and got the Alaska Railroad built in 1914 after giving a 5 1/2 hour speech on the floor of Congress. He submitted the first bill for Alaskan statehood in 1917. It didn’t pass, but he never stopped advocating for it.

He remained the representative from Alaska until 1921. He practiced law for a spell in Juneau, was elected to Congress again in 1931, and then went back to his Juneau practice. He published his memoirs, Old Yukon, in 1938, which have recently been republished. He died in Juneau, Alaska on October 24, 1939.

Tomb of Maya queen “Lady Snake Lord” found

October 5th, 2012

Archaeologists excavating the royal Maya city of El Perú-Waka’ in northwestern Guatemala have discovered the tomb of Lady K’abel, a powerful 7th century Maya queen previously known from an elaborate portrait of her on a stela dedicated in 692 A.D. that was looted from Waka’ in the 1960s. The stone slab is currently in the collection of the Cleveland Art Museum.

The team of archaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis, the College of Wooster in Ohio and Guatemala’s National Institute of Anthropology and History were not expecting to find the tomb of a famous queen from the Classic Maya civilization. Since 2003, their focus has been on studying religious features of the site like shrines and altars rather than burials. This particular spot, the main temple in the center of the city, they’d revisited repeatedly over the years because they found evidence that even after the fall of the last El Perú-Waka’ royal dynasty around 800 A.D., people kept returning to the temple for generations. They left layer after layer of offerings on the surface and dragged large royal stelae to the front of the temple. The team’s plan this season was to clear the main stairway of the temple to study its construction and try to determine why people continued to revere the spot long after the dynasty’s fall.

The main stairway was blocked by a masonry shrine made after the fall from stones taken from other buildings in the city. Once the later shrines were excavated, archaeologists dug underneath the main staircase. They found a monumental fire altar from the post-royal period with a mature woman buried underneath it, likely sacrificed in the dedication of the altar. Beneath that they found another shrine, this one much earlier, andArchaeologist Griselda Pérez holds jade artifact from tomb underneath that was a tomb containing the skeletal remains of a person who was buried with a vast wealth of grave goods.

Ceramic vessel from tombThe quality and number of these goods identified the deceased as someone extremely important. A number of decorated ceramic vessels were discovered with iconography that dates them to the late 7th, early 8th century. There were also multiple pieces of jewelry and figurines made from jade, a material so highly prized by the Maya that it was equal only to the feathers of the Resplendent Quetzal bird in value. The remains of some organic material were left in the tomb. The material is being analyzed now in the hope that it can be identified.

Front of alabaster jar carved into a conch shell shape with woman's head emergingOne particular artifact found in the tomb was the equivalent of winning the lottery in archaeological terms: a small alabaster jar carved in the shape of a conch shell with the head and the arm of an elderly person emerging from it. A strand of hair in front of her ear marks her as a woman; her lined face indicates her advanced age. The white of the alabaster indicates this may be a cache vessel called the White Soul Flower which played a special part in royal funerary rituals of the Classic Period. Also, in the Classic Maya religion, conch shells were symbols of the underworld and conch shell trumpets were the dwelling place of royal ancestors and gods. They would be blown during religious rituals to invoke the royals and deities. These factors strongly suggest that the vessel depicts a royal woman buried in the tomb.

Back of alabaster jar with glyphsThat’s not enough to pinpoint who exactly was buried there, however. Royal burials have been found before, but only five of them have named individuals inside. Thankfully, the Maya did us the great favor of engraving a short text consisting of four hieroglyphs on the back of the vessel. The first glyph is severely worn but can still be read. It reads “yotoot” which means “the house of.” The second glyph is well-preserved and probably refers to the contents of the vessel, but it’s unique enough to have stumped the epigraphers for the time being. (Remains inside the vessel are being analyzed which may answer the question and translate the glyph.)

Jar glyphs transcribedThe last two glyphs are the mother lode: the first is a personal name that translates to “Lady Waterlily-Hand” while the second is a female version of the Calakmul Emblem Glyph which translates to “Lady Snake Lord.” The glyph for K’abel is hands holding waterlilies, and we know from the Cleveland stela that Lady K’abel was the daughter of a Calakmul king. King Yuhknoom Ch’een the Great of the Calakmul Snake dynasty conquered what is now the Petén region of northern Guatemala during his reign (636-686 A.D.). King K’inich Bahlam II (meaning “Sun-Faced Jaguar”), king of El Perú-Waka’ and scion of the Wak or Centipede dynasty, helped Yuhknoom Ch’een during the war. Once the Calakmul empire was established in the area, the Centipede king became the vassal of the Snake king and was given the Snake king’s daughter in marriage.

Lady K’abel was not just the queen consort fobbed off on an allied king. She carried the title of “Kaloomte” or “Supreme Warrior” of the Wak kingdom, meaning she was its military governor. She and her husband ruled together for at least 20 years (672-692 A.D.), but as the Supreme Warrior and Lady Lord of the imperial house of the Snake king, she held greater authority than her husband did. A woman “Kaloomte” is extremely rare in Maya history. Lady Snake Lord and Sun-Faced Jaguar were both represented gloriously on stelae which once faced each other in El Peru before they were stolen and sold to US museums. The matching stela of K’inich Bahlam II is now in the Kimbell Art Museum.

Stela 33 depicting K’inich B’alam II, 692 A.D., Kimbell Art Museum Stela 34 depicting Lady K'abel, 692 A.D., Cleveland  Art Museum

It’s possible that the alabaster vessel does not name the person in the tomb. A later royal could have appropriated it to rub shoulders with the great queen in the underworld, for instance. This is unlikely because the ceramic vessels in the tomb date to Lady Snake Lord’s period. Other artifacts in the tomb confirm that she was a queen of the Late Classic period. A red spiny oyster shell found on the skeleton’s lower torso is characteristic of girdle ornaments worn by Waka’ queens, and a carved Carved jade head found in tombjade head was found in the tomb much like the ones K’abel wears around her neck on the Cleveland stela.

The presence of such an august figure in the history of Classic Maya civilization also explains why the temple was worshiped long after the demise of the Wak kingdom. The people left living in the city in its sad decline remembered their greatest queen, Supreme Warrior and Lady Snake Lord, and made offerings to her at the temple where she was buried.

Millions in gold, gems stolen from Cali museum

October 4th, 2012

Police outside museum after theftThieves wearing black hoodies, face masks and what appeared to be night vision goggles brazenly walked into the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa last Friday and stole millions of dollars’ worth of precious minerals. There were at least two men armed with weirdly historically appropriate pickaxes. It was just before 4:00 PM, in broad daylight, and the museum was still open. The robbers walked in, threatened the curator and guide who were the only two employees inside the museum at the time, and corralled them over to the other side of the building. They then ransacked the display cases, helping themselves to rare historic specimens of gold, gems and minerals.

Fricot NuggetThey tried to steal the Fricot Nugget, 14 pounds of crystalline gold, the largest mass of it from the Gold Rush to survive intact and the most valuable piece in the museum. It’s not inside a display case that can be broken with a pickaxe, however; it’s kept inside an iron vault. When the thieves set off the alarm, the vault door started to close behind them while they were still inside. They just managed to make it out on time — one man had to slam into the closing door with his shoulder and fell out into the museum — but did not get their grubby mitts on the Fricot Nugget. The police responded to the alarm immediately, swarming the museum in force, but it was too late. The criminals had escaped with their loot.

A 60-pound nugget of leaf gold on display at the museumThe museum is closed until further notice so they can repair the display cases, doors and other areas damaged by the thieves. The estimated value of the objects is around two million dollars, but the precise figure won’t be known until Parks Department staff finishes taking inventory of what was stolen. The rarity of the pieces will hopefully keep the thieves from selling them off quickly. The more immediate danger is that they could melt down the gold making it unrecognizable. A blowtorch, a crucible and two minutes is all they’d need to make a generic puddle out of even the most unique specimen. Crystalline gold, of which the museum has several large, beautiful and rare pieces, is particularly easy to melt down since it’s basically a clump of flakes. That’s the reason large pieces are so rare today, because they were all melted down into bullion during the Gold Rush.

Police are investigating the possibility that this Gold Rush theft is linked in some way to the theft of Gold Rush gold from the Siskiyou County Courthouse in Yreka, California in February of this year. There too the criminals were men in masks, although they broke in to the courthouse in the middle of the night. Given the appeal of gold right now and the weakened security of public facilities hobbled by budget constraints, the two thefts could well be entirely unrelated.

The California Highway Patrol is in charge of the investigation. They ask that anyone who might know anything at all pertinent to the theft — witnesses who may have seen loiterers outside the museum around 4:00 PM, anybody who has been approached to buy precious gems, metals and minerals in raw form — call the California Highway Patrol – Central Division Investigative Services Unit at (559) 277-7250.

Mining Museum interactive exhibitThis is a hard blow to an institution that has not had an easy year. The California State Mining and Mineral Museum was one of 70 state parks slated for closure on July 1st due to budget cuts. That date was moved back a little when the state government gave the parks a few more weeks to find partners — non-profits, community organizations, concessions operators — to help defray the costs. The museum could not secure a partner. Instead they submitted a proposal that would staff the museum entirely with volunteers. That proposal was rejected because state parks must be staffed by state parks employees, even when there’s only two in charge of millions of dollars in gems and gold.

At the eleventh hour, the Parks Department revealed it had found a secret nest egg of $54 million it hasn’t reported to state budget officials. This allowed the museums without a partnership agreement to remain open for the time being. The sword of Damocles was still hanging over the Mining and Mineral Museum, however. Now they have to spend money they don’t have repairing the damage and sorting out what to do with the gaps in their collection. Even if the police do find and return the objects, the security issue is going to have to be addressed, but with what money?

Benitoite, the California state gemstone, extremely rareIt’s a shame because the museum really does seem like an extremely cool place. It’s in a picturesque setting at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and has a collection of more than 13,000 objects, from precious minerals to mining artifacts, collected from all over California and the world. The California State Gem and Mineral Collection dates to 1880 when it was first put on display at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. It was moved to Mariposa in 1983. The museum became a state park in 1999.

The Fricot Nugget joined the collection in 1943 when it was still in the Ferry Building. It was donated by Mrs. Marie Fricot Benton, daughter of Jules Fricot, a French immigrant who owned several mines and ranches in Grass Valley starting in the 1850s. The nugget was discovered at the Grit Mine in August of 1865. Nobody is quite sure what happened to it for a while after that until it was found in a safe deposit box in Angels Camp, California in 1943. Mrs. Benton donated it to the State Gem and Mineral Collection, then under the purview of the State Division of Mines, in her father’s memory.

Amazonite and smoky quartz on display at the museumThere are some big, beautiful pictures of the museum, including its remarkable model gold mine and assay office, taken this May on Lucy D’Mot’s outstanding State Park Closures Trip blog. Geotripper has a gorgeous blog entry dedicated to the outstanding mineral specimens on display. Gem nerds (you know who you are), you have to click on that link.

Ancient 44-foot-long bog oak to make best table ever

October 3rd, 2012

44-foot-long fenland black oak trunk excavated September 25, 2012In February of this year, farmers G.S. Shropshire & Sons found a massive trunk of black bog oak thousands of years old in their field at Downham Market, Cambridgeshire, east England. The marshy Fenland area is known as a treasure trove of ancient timber which fell when sea levels rose starting around 7000 years ago. The fallen timbers were preserved in the silty water that would become peat. This trunk is 44 feet long and weighs five tons. There is no sign of tapering at either end, which means that this is just a section from the middle of the original tree, possibly no more than a quarter of it. Most of the trees from the East Anglian fenlands date from between 5,000 and 1,500 B.C. Its excellent state of preservation suggests that the tree it came from fell closer to the earlier date (newer trees fell on piles of older trees, leaving parts of them exposed to the elements), and radiocarbon dating of other bog oak recently recovered in the area returned a date of around 3,300 B.C.

The finders alerted cabinet makers Adamson and Low, specialists in bog oak processing who purchase hundreds of logs a year from fenland farmers who turn them up while working their fields. Hamish Low recognized that the size and condition of this trunk made it exceptional, that as a remnant of the giant trees that once bristled in England’s forests this specimen should be saved for the nation instead of being made into small furniture pieces.

It can’t be saved whole. After spending a few millennia in the comfy anaerobic conditions of fen peat, ancient bog wood begins to deteriorate as soon as it is exposed to the air. It’s waterlogged and needs to be fully dried as quickly as possible or else it’ll rot away. It has to be quarter-sawn and then dried artificially to ensure a constant rate of moisture extraction. The standard practice with large pieces of bog oak is to sawmill them at the recovery spot into lengths of no more than 12 feet. Once the rough planking is done, it’s milled into boards and placed in kilns to dry for months. You can’t just put the whole trunk in a kiln because the inside will rot before the slow drying heat has a chance to reach it.

Besides, bog oak is beautiful and historical, but it’s first and foremost a carpentry wood, prized for centuries as England’s only native black timber. (The tannins in the oak react to iron in the subsoil to turn the wood dark brown or black.) Because the giant oaks were so much larger than they are today, bog oak wood has medullary rays far wider than in modern oak. That makes for a thick stripe grain that looks particularly gorgeous on quarter-sawn boards. Traditional drying methods couldn’t preserve it in thick pieces, so its main use was as inlay wood or in the making of smaller decorative or furniture items. It’s only in the past 20 years that drying technology has advanced enough to allow the preservation of substantial hunks of ancient wood.

Hamish Low had the ambitious idea to preserve the majesty of this trunk while still tying it into the hundreds of years of British carpentry tradition. He could go ahead and plank the trunk, but instead of dividing the planks into more easily dried boards, they would be kept in their 44-foot lengths. Once dried the planks would shrink, but they’d still be massive and could be used to make a giant table. That huge tabletop could then be exhibited as an example of and tribute to the arboreal giants that once dominated the English landscape. There isn’t a single piece of bog oak as such on public display in the UK. Here was the perfect opportunity to rectify that oversight.

Bog oak trunk lifted whole onto specialized sawmillHe enlisted the support of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, the London trade association that is the descendant of the medieval carpentry guild, which got the official imprimatur of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on the project. Businesses and schools donated money, expertise, volunteers and equipment to mill, transport and dry full-length planks.

Bog oak trunk cut into planksWith specialized equipment and a team of 40 volunteers including expert millers, heavy machinery operators and students from the Building Crafts College in place, the giant trunk was unearthed on September 25th. It was lifted onto a 52-foot sawmill shipped from Canada courtesy of the Swedish company Logosol. The trunk was then sawn into ten 44-foot-long planks which were not only majestic in size but also particularly beautiful. Said an ecstatic Mr. Low:

“I’ve worked with Fenland Black Oak for over 20 years and this is not only the biggest piece I have ever seen, but the quality of the sawn planks is incredible. The tree has truly excelled herself.”

Detail of plank grainAfter milling, the planks were transported to the Building Crafts College facility in Stratford, East London, where they were placed in a kiln 50 feet long that was custom-built by the students expressly for this project.

The planks will dry in the kiln for six months. Hamish Low and his apprentice will supervise the students in the design of the table while the planks dry. They will also take advantage of the time to build the base to which the massive tabletop will be affixed. Finally, when the wood is dry, the team will make the tabletop and put the whole thing together. The estimated completion date is summer 2013.

The ultimate destination for this great table representing the great forests of England is as of yet undetermined. It will be open to the public, that much we know. You can follow the progress of the Fenland Black Oak Project on their website. I cannot wait to see the completed table. It’s going to be gorgeous for sure.

Set of 18th c. Venetian paintings return to The Elms

October 2nd, 2012

The ElmsThe Elms, a Gilded Age mansion in Newport, Rhode Island designed by architect Horace Trumbauer for coal baron Edward Julius Berwind, opened its doors to the first of many lavish parties in 1901. In keeping with the exterior, copied almost exactly from the Château d’Asnières outside of Paris, the interior of the home was decorated in opulent 18th century French style by Jules Allard. The interior decorating firm of Allard and Sons was headquartered in Paris, but its New York branch was the pre-eminent decorator for the scions of New York high society and their Rhode Island summer homes.

The Berwinds were avid collectors of 18th century French and Venetian paintings (among other things) and had a number of important pieces by the likes of Francesco Guardi, Jean Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher that are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In keeping with the Berwinds’ pre-existing collection, Allard acquired ten major early 18th century works by six Venetian artists including Sebastiano Ricci and Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini. Two of the four largest paintings were hung in the entrance foyer, the other two in the dining room.

The six remaining canvases were all placed in the dining room. Allard designed the room around the paintings, creating a cast plaster ceiling decorated in gold St. Mark’s lions, elaborate marble-topped sideboards and six doors with geometric panels over which the artworks were placed much like they had been in the palace in Venice whence they came.

Ca' Corner, Grand Canal, VeniceThe paintings are a set originally commissioned by the influential, wealthy Corner family for Cà Corner, their sumptuous palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. The theme is the history of the Corners, which according to family lore stretched all the way back to the Roman patrician gens Cornelia. The four large paintings celebrate the life of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the great Roman general who defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C., ending the Second Punic War and Carthage’s days as a major Mediterranean power. The six smaller paintings commemorate the feats of distinguished political and military leaders from the Corner family in the history of Venice.

Allard bought them complete with their original gilded frames so they would hang in The Elms just as they had in Cà Corner. The Corner paintings would give The Elms the distinction of having the most complete series of paintings dedicated to Venetian history outside of Venice.

After Mrs. Berwind died in 1922, Edward asked his sister Julia to move in and act as official hostess at The Elms. She did so and continued to do so long after his death in 1936, living at The Elms in grand style until her own death in 1961 at the age of 96. She left The Elms to a nephew who wanted nothing to do with it. Neither did anyone else in the family. By then, the Gilded Age lifestyle of dozens of servants and endless maintenance headaches had lost its appeal even to the rich. The Berwinds decided to cut their losses and sell out. The family put the contents of the mansion up for auction in June of 1962, and then sold The Elms to a developer who planned to raze it and build something atrocious in its place.

The Preservation Society of Newport County stepped in to prevent this dire fate. In 1962, with just weeks to go before the mansion’s destruction, they raised $116,000 to purchase The Elms property and open it to the public as a museum. The auction of the contents was a done deal, however. The furniture and art work were scattered. The six smaller Venetian paintings were sold as a group for $14,000. The four large paintings from the Venetian set stayed in place simply because they could not be removed. They’re 12 feet by 12 feet and had been stuck to the walls with white lead to ensure they didn’t topple over from their own weight.

In the years since then, the Preservation Society has been able to track down and buy back some of the lost furnishings and art. The massive dining room table was being used in a conference room at Brown University. In 2004, they raised $250,000 to buy back four of the six Venetian paintings from New York art dealers Wildenstein & Company. The last two were with Wildenstein & Co. as well, but they were the most valuable and the Preservation Society simply could not raise that kind of money.

"Anteros Pleads with Atropos" by Sebastiano Ricci, late 17th, early 18th centuryBoth of the final two paintings are by Sebastiano Ricci. One of them, Anteros Pleads With Atropos, depicts winged Anteros, god of requited love, son of Aphrodite, brother of Eros, pleading with Atropos, one of the Fates, not to cut the threads of the life of the three wounded men in the painting. The three men are a Venetian man with his arm around a Slav, and another Venetian man seated in front of them. In the distance you can see a view of Venice. Art historians believe this is a reference to Alvise Corner who in 999 A.D. helped conquer Dalmatia for Venice. Anteros’ presence paints the conquest as a coming together of lovers in shared feeling, not the subjugation of Slavic peoples by Venetian force.

"Investiture of Marco Corner as Count of Zara in 1344" by Sebastiano Ricci, late 17th, early 18th c.The second painting says it all in the title. It’s The Investiture of Marco Corner as Count of Zara in 1344 and depicts Marco Corner, who would become Doge of Venice in his 60s, as a young man. Zara (Zadar in Croatia today) was much fought over by Venice. Zara was one of the cities that appealed to Venice to quash the Neretvian pirates in 998, which was the pretext for the conquest of Dalmatia depicted in the Anteros painting. It bounced back and forth between Venetian authority, the Kingdom of Hungary-Croatia, and the Byzantine Empire for centuries. In 1344, Marco Corner was appointed its Count.

It’s the Investiture in particular which broke the Preservation Society of Newport County’s bank for so long. It was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in London in 2009. The pre-sale estimate was $643,000-$964,000. Anteros was also for sale in that same auction with a more modest but still exorbitant estimate of $241,000-$320,000. Fortunately for The Elms, neither of them sold, nor have they sold since then.

Finally this year the Society was able to strike a bargain with the owners: $650,000 for both paintings. Since the price was never going to get any better than that, a vigorous fundraising appeal was successful thanks to a generous small group of donors. It’s the largest purchase the Preservation Society has ever made.

Now the entire dining room is back to its 1901 splendor, and the entire Corner collection is back in one place again. You can see what the room used to look like before the recovery of the table and the smaller paintings in this virtual tour. It really does look forlorn with the plain, thin table and the gaps above the doors where the paintings used to be, which is weird considering what an explosion of Rococo it is.

The Elms dining room restored to its 1901 glory

Anonymous buyers win Elizabeth’s saddle, Bonnie & Clyde’s guns

October 1st, 2012

Queen Elizabeth I saddlecloth, 1574It’s been a great end of the week for anonymous private collectors. On Friday, the green velvet and gold saddlecloth used by Queen Elizabeth I on her official visit to Bristol in 1574 was purchased by an unnamed buyer for £19,000 ($30,000), £23,560 ($38,000) including buyer’s premium. The estimated sale price was £8,000-10,000, so it more than doubled the minimum and almost doubled the top end of the range. Not a surprising outcome given how beautiful the saddlecloth is, its historical significance and its excellent condition considering it’s almost half a millennium old.

Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to Flight Lieutenant Marcas Kramer, 1940Nothing else at Dreweatts’ Arms, Medals & Militaria sale even came close. World War II lots were the runners up on sale price. A Distinguished Flying Cross medal awarded to Flight Lieutenant Marcas Kramer for gallantry and devotion to duty while under attack by German aircraft over Rotterdam on May 10th, 1940 sold for £4,200 ($6,800), £5,208 ($8,400) with buyer’s premium. That’s more than double the high estimate, a suitable tribute to a Jewish pharmacist from Bermondsey who calmly told his pilot how to avoid attack while he dismantled and repaired his gun, then used the gun to drive off the enemy. Marcas Kramer would not survive the war. He was killed on May 21st, 1941.

KPM Vase depicting Old Reich Chancellery Berlin flying the Fuhrer standard, 1933-38The second runner up in sale price is the other side of the pendulum. It’s a Nazi-era porcelain vase by the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur (Royal Porcelain Manufacture in Berlin) with an image of the Old Reich Chancellery in Berlin on the front. That’s the building where President von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933. The Führer’s standard flies above the chancellery, and there’s a Third Reich eagle over a swastika on the back which dates the piece to between 1933 and 1938. The Old Reich Chancellery was destroyed in the war. The vase sold for £3,800 ($6,100), £4,712 ($7,600) with buyer’s premium, below the minimum estimate of £4,000.

Those buyer’s premium prices, by the way, do not include VAT or sales tax. That’s just the 24% cut the auction house gets. Nice work if you can get it.

Clyde Barrow's 1911 Colt .45The two Colt handguns taken from the still-warm bodies of outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer sold, as expected, for considerably more than their pre-sale estimates. Clyde’s Colt .45, retrieved by Hamer from the waistband of his pants, sold for $240,000. Bonnie’s Colt .38 Detective Special, retrieved by Hamer from her inner thigh where she kept it taped with white medical tape, sold for $264,000. They were both purchased by the same person, a Texas collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

Bonnie Parker's 1933 Colt Detective Special .38The full results of Sunday’s American Gangsters, Outlaws and Lawmen sale at RR Auctions in Nashua, New Hampshire will be posted on the auctioneer’s website today. The news stories note that several other Bonnie and Clyde objects sold well, among them a gold pocket watch found on Clyde’s body ($36,000), a 1921 Morgan silver dollar from his jacket pocket ($32,400), and because it’s important that we fetishize Bonnie as much as possible, one of her silk stockings found in their car after the shootout ($11,400). If the same Texas collector bought the stocking, he could recreate Bonnie’s entire leg with her sexy bullet-riddled outlaw accessories.

It’s fitting that the auction also included a giant hand-painted banner advertising a Bonnie and Clyde freakshow from the early 1930s. It’s 12 x 9 feet and features Bonnie in a red coat, smoking a cigarette, holding a gun and wearing her famous beret. Clyde is behind her looking like a dandy. He’s smoking too but carries no visible weapon. Clearly the outlaw lady is the star. The slogans (“The Wages Of Crime Is Death”) promise a stern moral lesson to justify their customers’ salacious gazes at whatever it is about “Boy & Girl Gangsters” they had on display.

I personally would have bid on Meyer Lansky’s hat. That’s a fine looking chapeau.

Meyer Lansky hat, 1940s

Klimt’s last and only surviving studio opens today

September 30th, 2012

North facade of Klimt Villa today, studio on the ground floorGustav Klimt’s last Vienna studio, the only surviving property associated with his work, opens to the public today after almost 15 years of political struggle and an extensive renovation. The museum is not complete yet and probably won’t be for some time, but it’s close enough to welcome visitors in celebration of European Heritage Day today.

Feldmühlgasse garden house, photo by Moritz Nähr, 1915The villa at Feldmühlgasse 11 is very different than it was when Klimt lived and worked there from 1912 until his death in 1918. It was a modest one-story home in his day, set in a large bucolic garden that was so beautiful neighbors, visitors and later tenants raved about it for years. He rented it from furniture manufacturer Josef Hermann, whose daughter was the future wife of painter Felix Albrecht Harta. It was Harta, a friend and colleague of Klimt’s, who suggested he rent the place. Klimt made changes to the garden house, creating a large north window for his workroom and whitewashing the exterior.

Gustav Klimt with kitty in front of the entrance to his second-to-last studioAfter Klimt’s death from a stroke and pneumonia in February 1918, Mrs. Helene Herrmann started making additions to the garden house, hiring an architect to plan a much larger, two-story villa over it. Construction was not complete when Josef Hermann died in 1922, but his widow, probably under some financial duress, sold the property as it was to Ernestine Werner (soon to be Mrs. Ernestine Klein) who went forward with the construction plan and had a neo-Baroque villa built on top of and around the studio, changing the house beyond recognition.

The Klein family fled to London after the Nazi takeover of Austria. The house was “Aryanized” in 1939, forcibly confiscated and sold to non-Jews. In 1948 the Austrian government returned the villa to the Klein family, but it had been sorely neglected. In 1954 the Kleins sold it back to the government for a small sum. The condition of the house was so poor that it was slated for demolition, but in 1957 the government instead turned it into a school.

Klimt Villa in 2007At this point, Klimt had faded into obscurity. It would be another decade before shows in London and New York would bring him roaring back into the public consciousness. He was, however, still known in Austria; the property that had once housed his studio was colloquially referred to as “Klimt Villa,” but the studio was considered lost, swallowed up by all the later construction. In 1998, the villa was on its last legs. The land was scheduled to be sold to developers in lots and the villa subdivided into apartments or, what was more likely for the leaking, decrepit old structure, torn down altogether.

1923 plansA group of private citizens formed to fight the planned destruction of the property. They found building plans from 1922 that clearly delineated the original studio, planned new construction and showed areas slated for demolition. The plans proved that the studio was not destroyed. The garden house as it was in Klimt’s day was converted whole into the first floor of the baroque villa. Some walls were torn down, doors moved and windows changed, but the structure was intact and salvageable.

The private citizens’ group formed itself into the Gustav Klimt Memorial Society in 1999. The society’s explicit aim was to rescue the Klimt Villa studio as the last property still standing that was used by the artist, and boy have they had to work for it. In 2000 they got the villa added to the list of “Historic Houses Owned by the Republic of Austria,” a designation which does not provide federal conservation protection from alteration but was at least a legal recognition of the house’s historical importance.

Klimt's reception room, photo by Moritz Nähr, 1917-18The political struggle to keep the house from being sold continued throughout the first decade of the millennium. Secret demolition plans kept cropping up, plans to have the house de-listed so it could be sold to Russian developers, suggestions that the villa should be stripped back to the original garden house. Finally in 2009 the villa was declared a national monument, keeping it safe from various destruction schemes. The next year a workable plan was drawn up to create a Klimt Museum in the villa, and the Austrian Ministry of Economic Affairs agreed to fund the two million euro renovation.

Reconstructed north-facing window in the studio workroomConstruction work began in early 2011. Using written descriptions of the property from contemporaries like Egon Schiele and three photographs taken of the workroom, reception room and garden by Moritz Nähr from 1915 to right around the time of Klimt’s death, restorers were able to return the studio space to something approaching its look in Klimt’s day.

Here’s Schiele’s description of the Feldmühlgasse studio from just after Klimt’s death:

“Klimt decorated the garden around the house in the Feldmühlgasse with flower-beds each year- it was a delight to visit it and be in the midst of flowers and old trees. In front of the door there were two attractive heads which Klimt had sculpted. One first entered an anteroom where the door on the left led into his reception room. In the middle there was a square table; all around there were grouped displays of Japanese woodblock prints and two large Chinese pictures. On the floor there were African sculptures, and in the corner by the window there was a Japanese red-and-black suit of armour. This room led into two other rooms, where you looked out on to rose bushes.”

Klimt's workroom by Moritz Nähr 1917-18Nähr’s pictures show the reception room exactly as Schiele described it. In the workroom you can see easels with two of Klimt’s 1917 works in progress, “Lady with Fan” on the right, and “The Bride” (which he never finished) on the left. Both are now in private collections. The furniture in both rooms was designed by Josef Hoffmann, the homeowner, and most of it actually survived the war. A large wardrobe which once held Klimt’s extensive collection of Asian fabrics went to his partner Emilie Flöge after his death. It was lost along with everything he had willed her right when her apartment was destroyed just before the end of World War II.

"Lady with Fan" by Gustav Klimt, 1917-18The rest of the furniture is in private hands today. A private collector has loaned one of the African stools from the workroom to the villa. Perhaps more will follow. Meanwhile, exact reproductions have been made to recreate the authentic look of the studio. Even the carpet in the reception room has been recreated exactly by original manufacturers Backhausen, who thankfully had a sample of the original in their archives. Visitors today will see a number of period costumes from the 1910s. There will be copies of the drawings Klimt had scattered all around the studio and two full-sized blow-ups of"The Bride" by Gustav Klimt, 1917-18 the paintings in Nähr’s picture of the workroom. In a stroke of luck, Klimt’s original bathtub was found. It will be placed in one of the model waiting rooms.

Although sadly Egon Schiele’s vision of the Klimt Villa can no longer come true –

“Nothing should be removed – because everything connected with Klimt’s house is a whole and is itself a work of art which must not be destroyed. The unfinished pictures, brushes, painter’s work table and palette should not be touched and the studio should be opened as a Klimt Museum for the few who enjoy and love art.”

– at least the conclusion now has. For a somewhat terrifying look at what it took to get to this point, see this photo gallery of the restoration work from the Klimt Villa website.

$7 Renoir stolen from Baltimore museum in 1951

September 29th, 2012

"Paysage Bords de Seine" by Pierre-Auguste RenoirThe good news is that the paper trail confirms that Paysage Bords de Seine, the small landscape painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir reportedly purchased along with a plastic cow and Paul Bunyan doll for $7 at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market in West Virginia, is indeed authentic. The bad news is it was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art 61 years ago and therefore does not legally belong to the lady who found it. This morning’s planned auction has been cancelled, and the FBI is now on the case.

The news came as a surprise to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira was trying to trace the movements of the painting after it was purchased from the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris by collector Herbert L. May in 1926. May’s ex-wife Saidie Adler May was a major donor to the Baltimore Museum of Art, and many of her papers are kept at the museum’s library. While looking through a box of Saidie’s correspondence and receipts, Shapira found a note recording that she had loaned Paysage Bords de Seine to the museum in 1937.

Loan record of Renoir's "Paysage Bords de Seine" at the Baltimore Museum of ArtThe BMA had already checked its ownership records of the vast Saidie May Adler collection when the auction house did its due diligence. There was no mention of the Renoir piece being among the more than one thousand paintings donated to the museum by Mrs. Adler. Nobody even thought to check the loan records until Shapira found the note, which included a loan registration number. Museum director Doreen Bolger looked it up and discovered an orange index card describing the painting, the story behind its creation, its purchase for $1,000 at Bernheim-Jeune and then, in November of 1951, its theft from the Baltimore Museum of Art’s display gallery.

A shocked Bolger called Elizabeth Wainstein, president of the Potomack Company, the auction house where the painting was to be sold, who immediately agreed to stop the sale. Together they called the FBI to report the theft. Further research revealed a City of Baltimore police report (pdf) from November 17th, 1951 in which James M. Porter Jr., Executive Assistant at the museum, declares that “some time between 6 P.M. Nov 16 & 1 P.M.” November 17, “some one” stole the Renoir in its gilt frame from the museum with “no evidence of forced entrance.” That seems to have been the end of it. No follow-up has been found in the police archives as of yet, and the story never made the papers.

Renoir theft report, November 17, 1951Both the loan record and the police report note that the painting was insured for $2,500. It’s not clear to me whether there are confirmed records of the insurance company paying out at that time, but that seems to be the assumption. The BMA isn’t sure who the insurers were, but if the company can be pinpointed and still exists today, it could well be the legal owner of the Renoir. It depends on the details of the insurance agreement and on Maryland law in 1951.

Paysage Bords de Seine will stay at the auction house until the FBI investigation determines who is the rightful owner of the piece. It’s a tricky question. Saidie Adler May died in May of 1951. She left her entire collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art in her will, and her estate was still being probated when the painting was stolen six months later. The BMA thinks they’re the rightful owners since that’s what Saidie Adler May clearly intended, but if they took the money from the insurers, May’s intent may be irrelevant.

Elizabeth Wainstein questions whether Saidie was even the technical owner of the painting, since according to the Bernheim-Jeune gallery’s records it was sold to Herbert L. May, not his wife. This seems shaky to me. The Mays had been separated for two years in 1926 when Herbert bought the painting. They got divorced in 1927. Paysage was in Saidie’s hands ten years later when she loaned it to the Baltimore Museum of Art, so unless we’re to assume she stole it from her estranged husband, she probably got it in the divorce.

I’m afraid “Renoir girl,” the lady who purportedly made the score of the century while flea marketing, is probably the last on the list of potential legitimate owners. She may be entirely innocent of any wrong-doing, but finders keepers doesn’t apply with stolen goods. Whoever legally owned it last — May estate, museum or insurer — probably owns it now.

Legal wrangling aside, the orange index card tells a lovely story of how the painting came to be. In addition to being charming, it also explains something that bugged me about the painting; namely, the large unpainted margins left and right, particularly noticeable on such a small piece (5.5″ x 9″). It was not painted on a stretched canvas, you see, but rather on a linen napkin. From the loan record:

Mrs. May says that the story goes that Renoir painted this landscape for his mistress, at a restaurant on the Seine – thus the linen napkin.

That would certainly explain why it looks so unfinished and dashed off compared to Renoir’s larger, more complex Seine landscapes like Landscape of Wargemont.

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