Saturday, September 29, 2012
Flea-market Renoir may have been plundered
The lore of the landscape was as irresistible to its owner as its beautiful brush strokes: Renoir had painted it, Baltimore collector Saidie May said, for his mistress on a linen napkin at a Paris restaurant along the Seine.
So how did the small painting wind up in a $7 box of junk at a West Virginia flea market more than eight decades after May’s exhusband, Herbert L. May, purchased “On the Shore of the Seine” from a Paris gallery in 1926?
The mystery, which generated headlines this month when an Alexandria auction house announced that it would sell what it believes is that Renoir, became clearer this week when a Washington Post reporter entered the library at the Baltimore Museum of Art. In a box full of Saidie May’s letters and artwork receipts lay one major clue: records showing that she had lent the painting to the museum in 1937. The discovery startled museum officials, who had already said the flea-market Renoir never entered their institution.
But armed with the loan registration number, museum officials dug up in their collection records an even-more-astounding clue about the Renoir’s journey. An old museum loan registration document revealed that the tiny landscape, measuring 51/ by 9 inches,
2 was stolen Nov. 17, 1951, from the BMA — shortly after May’s death.
Nowthe painting’s highly anticipated auction by the Potomack Company has been canceled. The FBI is investigating, and museum officials are trying to learn more about the painting’s theft. They couldn’t explain why it does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen and lost art.
“Obviously, we take our responsibility for our collections and the things entrusted to us very seriously. Wehaveto do more research and get to the bottom of the real story, and we’re still in the midst of that process,” BMA Director Doreen Bolger said. “We have a lot of written and printed records, and they are filed in many areas of the museum.”
The new details could trigger a legal showdownover the painting’s ownership among several players: the historic Baltimore museum; the company that insured the painting and paid a $2,500 claim for the stolen artwork; the six-yearold auction house; and the Virginia woman who unwittingly purchased the Renoir at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market.
Bolger was clear about where the painting belongs: in the BMA’s May Collection. “We want the painting back. That painting was associated with her, and she’s one of the most important donors in the museum,” she said. “It was her decision that it would come to us.”
But it’s not as clear-cut to Elizabeth Wainstein, the Potomack Company’s president. Because Herbert L. May is listed as the buyer by the French gallery where the piece was first sold, she’s not certain that Saidie May technically owned it, said Wainstein, who wants more proof that the Renoir was pilfered.
“There is a strong indication, but we want to see a police report,” she said, adding that the landscape known as “Paysage Bords de Seine” will remain at her auction house until the matter is settled. “We would not sell the painting until we know the proper owner. We just need to the know the truth.”
The true owner of the painting might be the company that insured the Renoir at the time of its disappearance, said Christopher A. Marinello, executive director and general counsel of the Londonbased Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of stolen and lost art. In the mid-20th century, most art insurers had policies stipulating that they are entitled to stolen artwork that is recovered and for which they’ve paid claims, he said.
“Does the insurance company own the painting? Of course they do,” Marinello said. “When an insurance company [back then] paid out on losses, the title resided with the insurer.”
Museum officials aren’t sure who insured the painting. “We don’t know with complete certainty,” Bolger said. “I don’t know what the rules of insurance were at the time. Remember, this was 1951. I was only 2 years old at the time.”
Many of the museum’s records, Bolger said, are not as organized as they could be. When news of the flea-market Renoir surfaced in early September, Bolger said museum officials checked permanent-collection records to see if they had ever had it. They found no records of the landscape, which is dated to 1879.
They figured that was the only place they needed to check because May, who has a wing at the BMA named for her, had bequeathed her art collection to the museum. But the museum did not check its loan records.
It wouldn’t be the first time a May artwork has been stolen. The museum informed May in 1946 that it lost a French illuminated manuscript from its Renaissance room, along with a small leatherbound book with a fleur-de-lis on the cover.
“I feel that both items were deliberate thefts, and if two people work together one can draw the guard’s attention while the other vaults the rail in that room,” a museum official wrote May in a letter stored in the museum’s library.
Wainstein, Potomack’s president, said the Virginia woman who made the flea-market find was disappointed. But the woman also immediately agreed to halt the sale until the FBI determines the rightful ownership of the painting, which the auction house estimates is worth $75,000 to $100,000.
Sharon Flescher, an art historian and executive director of the nonprofit International Foundation for Art Research, said the value of an artwork depends on its size, subject, condition, quality and rarity. One tiny Renoir landscape sold for $35,000 in June, she noted, while larger, more high-profile works can command millions.
The Virginia woman, whowants to remain anonymous, bought the landscape in 2010 for $7 in a box with a doll and a plastic cow. She stashed the boxfor nearly twoyears before her mother suggested that the painting might be a real Renoir.
The woman brought the painting to the auction house in July. Potomack checked with the Art Loss Register to make sure the piece hadn’t been stolen and confirmed its authenticity with the Paris-based Bernheim-Jeune gallery, which sold the painting to the May family in 1926 and keeps a registry detailing the ownership histories of Renoir pieces.
Susan Helen Adler, a great-niece of Saidie May who has written a book about her, said the news about the Renoir saddened her.
“I hope it gets returned to the museum where it belongs and where it was originally given to them for a purpose,” Adler said. “It would be wrong for someone else to buy it and know that it had been stolen.”
Friday, September 28, 2012
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Bronze Age skeletons reveal strange secrets
IT IS one of Britain’s most intriguing archaeological finds. When two almost perfectly preserved 3000-year-old skeletons were dug up on a remote Scottish island they were the first evidence that ancient Britons preserved their dead using mummification.
The scientists who uncovered the skeletons also found clues that one of them, apparently a man buried in a crouching position, was not a single individual, but had been assembled from the body parts of different people.
The discovery began a 10-year investigation into what had led the Bronze Age islanders to this strange fate. Now, a study using the latest technology has found that the two skeletons together comprise the remains of at least six individuals who died several hundred years apart.
The researchers believe that large extended families may have shared their homes with the mummified remains of their ancestors, before deliberately putting the bodies together to look like single corpses – possibly in an attempt to demonstrate the uniting of different families.
Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at University College London who led the research, said the mixing of the body parts could have been because of ‘‘misfortune or carelessness’’. But he added: ‘‘The merging of their identities may have been a deliberate act, perhaps designed to amalgamate different ancestries into a single lineage.’’
The skeletons were unearthed in 2001 while Professor Parker Pearson was examining the remains of buildings at a site called Cladh Hallan in a sand quarry in South Uist. The site had been a Bronze Age settlement that was inhabited for well over 1000 years.
While digging out the foundations of one of the houses, the archaeologists found the skeletons of an adult man and a woman they believed to be aged about 40.
The skeletons appeared to be more than 3000 years old and predated the house under which they were buried by several hundred years. Both had been buried in a crouched position on their sides and, from the way the bones remained connected, it appeared they had been carefully preserved.
Friday, September 21, 2012
Blues singer’s sweet nature scored him a catchy hit with many
James ‘‘Sugar Boy’’ Crawford was a New Orleans rhythm and blues singer who in 1953 wrote Jock-A-Mo, a song that became a catchy hit in the 1960s as Iko Iko.
With lyrics borrowed from old Mardi Gras Indian chants, Jock-AMo was successfully recorded as Iko Iko by the Dixie Cups in 1965. Other artists, including Dr John, the Grateful Dead and Cyndi Lauper, also recorded versions.
In 1963, while on tour in the then segregated American South, Crawford was stopped by the local police, dragged from his car and beaten so badly that he decided to give up a professional career in music. Only in recent years did he occasionally return to the stage.
James Crawford, always known as ‘‘Sugar Boy’’ on account of his sweet nature as a child, was born on October 12, 1934, in New Orleans. His neighbourhood was known as ‘‘The Bucket of Blood’’ because local bars were notorious for Saturday night shootings.
Having learned to play the piano, at high school he took up the trombone, forming a rhythm and blues band, the Chapaka Shawee, which performed in local clubs.
When Leonard Chess, cofounder of Chess Records, heard the band rehearsing at a radio station in New Orleans, he made an audition tape of the group. The result was a 78rpm record of I Don’t Know What I’ll Do, credited on the label to Sugar Boy and His Cane Cutters.
After Crawford’s hit with JockA-Mo, more singles followed, including You Gave Me Love, Morning Star and She’s Gotta Wobble ( When She Walks).
But in 1963, en route to a show in north Louisiana, Crawford was stopped by police and pistol-whipped. His only crime appears to have been that of being a black man at the wheel of a flashy new car. ‘‘The sheriff in Columbia called ahead, and they had a roadblock set up for me,’’ he recalled. ‘‘The police jumped on me and cracked my skull.’’
Crawford was left in a coma. A metal plate was inserted in his skull and he lost much of his memory. Two years in recovery, he had to learn again how to walk, talk, and play the piano.
Although he attempted a comeback, Crawford felt his talent had diminished. He abandoned rhythm and blues and confined singing to the church.
He became a building engineer, and later ran a locksmith business. In 1984 he met Benny Goodman’s brother, Gene Goodman, who ran a music publishing company, and who offered to help him recover royalties for Jock-A-Mo. ‘‘I figured 50 per cent of something was better than 100 per cent of nothing,’’ Crawford said.
He earned royalties whenever Jock-A-Mo or one of its derivatives turned up in films or commercials, such as when the Belle Stars’ recording of Iko Iko appeared on the soundtrack of the film Rain Man (1988).
Eventually his grandson, the singer Davell Crawford, coaxed Crawford out of retirement. Earlier this year he made a guest appearance with the gospel singer Jo ‘‘Cool’’ Davis at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz Festival.
As for the phrase ‘‘Jock-A-Mo’’, some music scholars believe it translates in Mardi Gras Indian slang as ‘‘You can kiss my ass’’.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Another book of revelations: the carpenter took a wife
BOSTON: A Harvard professor has unveiled a 4th-century fragment of papyrus she says is the only existing ancient text quoting Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife.
Karen King, an expert in the history of Christianity, said the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to ‘‘my wife’’, whom he identifies as Mary.
Professor King said the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century.
Professor King helped translate and unveiled the tiny fragment at a conference of Coptic experts in Rome. She said it does not prove Jesus was married but speaks to issues of family and marriage that faced Christians.
Four words in the 3.8-centimetre x 7.6-centimetre fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, she said. Those words, written in a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, translate to ‘‘Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’ ,’’ Professor King said in a statement. In the dialogue the disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy and Jesus says ‘‘she can be my disciple’’.
Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried even though there was no reliable historical evidence to support that, Professor King said.
The new gospel ‘‘tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage’’.
‘‘From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’s marital status to support their positions.’’
Professor King presented the document at a six-day conference being held at Rome’s La Sapienza University and at the Augustinianum institute of the Pontifical Lateran University.
The fragment belongs to an anonymous private collector. Nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery, but it had to have come from Egypt.
Professor King repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
But the find is exciting, she said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides evidence there was discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.
‘‘This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married. There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.’’
Need a filling? Stone Age dentists knew their beeswax
AUSTRALIAN scientists have helped date what may be the world’s oldest dental filling – in a tooth crowned with beeswax in a 6500-year-old human jaw.
The portion of lower jaw, which was uncovered in a cave wall in northern Slovenia – an area rich in archaeological sites – bears two premolars, two first molars and a cracked canine filled with beeswax.
The thickness and size of the specimen suggests it belonged to a male, while the degree of wear on the teeth points to an owner aged in their late 20s.
An international team, including scientists from the University of Wollongong and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, used a range of sophisticated analytical technologies in laboratories around the world to date the teeth and the beeswax, as well as sample the filling and bone.
Radio carbon dating suggests the teeth’s owner lived sometime during the New Stone Age, between 6440 and 6650 years ago.
Detailed CT images of the canine tooth reveal the deep crack exposed the tooth’s dentine, the calcified tissue that sits below the enamel.
The exposed tissue and chewing on a cracked tooth probably made it highly sensitive, and could have affected the function of the jaw, the researchers said.
‘‘The occlusal surface could have been filled with beeswax in an attempt to reduce the pain sealing exposed dentine tubules,’’ they said.
While the specimen is the first known beeswax dental filling, historians have suspected early human societies used the bee products for some time.
The ancient Egyptian medical papyrus, known as the Ebers Papyrus, which date back to the 16th century BC, document the use of honey mixed with mineral ingredients to fix loose teeth or reduce pain.
While the team suspect the tooth was filled with beeswax while the person was alive, they acknowledge it could have been filled after death. ‘‘Such a postmortem intervention could be related to secondary burial practices,’’ the researchers, whose findings were published in the online journal PLoS One, said.
The specimen has been held in the Natural History Museum of Trieste in Italy since it was discovered.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Saturday, September 8, 2012
Swashbuckling days are at an end after officialdom blunts any future for de Groot’s sword
IT IS a sword that has seen things. Been places.
Francis de Groot’s famous blade, used by the cavalry officer to crash the gala opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, began its working life on the Western Front, where it was presumably used for swashbuckling purposes.
It had its celebrity moment at the bridge opening, when de Groot barged in front of the premier, Jack Lang, and used it to slash the ceremonial ribbon and declare the bridge open ‘‘in the name of the decent and respectable people of NSW’’.
Later, it wended its way back to Ireland, before being bought by the BridgeClimb entrepreneur Paul Cave, returned to the Antipodes and unveiled for the 75th anniversary of the bridge.
Now, it lives in a vault and, last week, its keepers sought to take it to the heart of democracy – into Parliament House in Canberra.
The sword, so effective at gatecrashing into Australian history, had not reckoned on the power of the bureaucracy or the rules of the usher of the Black Rod.
It began, ironically enough, with a Security in Government conference hosted by the Attorney-General’s Department. Mr Cave was invited as the main speaker at the formal conference dinner, to be held at Parliament House on Tuesday night.
Having dealt with serious security issues in creating BridgeClimb and worked closely with government to resolve them, Mr Cave seemed an ideal choice.
Mr Cave thought his speech would be enhanced, and a certain drama added, if he was able to bring the famous sword and unveil it before his audience at an opportune moment.
But in the modern age, moving such a valuable historical artefact is no small thing. First, Mr Cave had to liberate the sword from its bank vault. A legislative exemption had to be granted from the Office of Transport Security. Approvals were sought and given, and Qantas negotiated with the authorities to fly the sword from Sydney to Canberra in a secure locked box.
All that remained was permission to bring the blade into Parliament House.
Black Rod, Brien Hallett, was worried about the sword.
Media may be present and report the sword’s presence, which in turn could create a bad precedent. Other people might then insist on the right to bring swords into Parliament.
There were workplace safety issues, and that was not to mention the risk of skylarking. Which is an appreciable one when a certain kind of man is given access to free wine along with the opportunity to play with weapons.
‘‘As a general principle, weapons are not allowed to be brought into the Parliament for issues of security and workplace safety,’’ Mr Hallett told the Herald.
‘‘We followed the procedures we have and that was the beginning and end of it basically.’’
And so the sword sits lonely in its bank vault. Its swashbuckling years over, its day of skylarking denied.
Friday, September 7, 2012
‘‘HISTORY has a reputation as boring and irrelevant,’’ says the executive officer of the History Council of NSW, Zoe Pollock. That is why Threads, the theme of History Week, is taking history ‘‘out of libraries and museums’’ to reach anybody who ever got out of bed and wondered what to wear.Photo: Janie Barrett
‘‘By looking at the history of clothes, our aim is to reach people who might not to go to a library or pick up a history book,’’ Ms Pollock said.
There will be exhibitions and talks on what clothing says about Australian history. ‘‘Everyone can relate to clothes,’’ said the dress historian Margot Riley, a curator with the State Library of NSW. ‘‘At some point of the day, we all have to make decisions about getting dressed, and that’s very much relevant to the history of our daily lives.’’
The council asked six fashion designers to design clothes using a historical figure as their muse. The snappy dresser who gave his name to Bennelong Point 200 years ago is the muse for a new blazer and tie by the contemporary gentleman’s tailor P. Johnson to launch History Week.
‘‘Bennelong and a lot of the indigenous men responded to Western dress,’’ Ms Riley said. ‘‘They didn’t like trousers, so they’d picked and chose what aspects to take on. They definitely liked jackets, particularly their warmth, and they liked display features like fancy silk shirts. And they also loved hats.’’
Jean Garling, a lieutenant in the army medical service during World War II and arts patron, was the muse for a khaki dress by Camilla and Marc. It has a skirt fit for a ballerina, and the top has epaulettes and an army belt.
Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer who in 1907 was fined for wearing a body-hugging one-piece on a Massachusetts beach, was the inspiration for the designer Zimmerman.
For History Week (September 8 to 16) events, see historycouncilnsw.org .au/history-week.