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Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Marjorie Caygill

The Provenance of Three British Museum Turquoise Mosaics

This article has generously been specially written for us by Marjorie Caygill (Centre for Anthropology, British Museum), author of several books and articles on the British Museum’s collections. She gave an enlightening lecture (‘Christy, Franks and the British Museum’s Turquoise Mosaics’) at the interdisciplinary conference on Turquoise held at the BM in December 2009 - a history that she described as ‘a series of detective stories’...

Pic 1: Turquoise mosaic mask similar to, but not identical with, that described by Sahagun. Bought by A. W. Franks following the Demidoff sale, Paris, 1870. (AOA Q87 Am.3)
Pic 1: Turquoise mosaic mask similar to, but not identical with, that described by Sahagun. Bought by A. W. Franks following the Demidoff sale, Paris, 1870. (AOA Q87 Am.3) (Click on image to enlarge)

In his account of the Conquest of Mexico the Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagun (c.1499-1590) described one of the gifts given by Moctezuma to Hernan Cortés:-

A mask worked in mosaic of turquoise; this mask has a double and twisted snake worked in the same stones whose fold was on the projection of the nose, then the tail was parted from the head and the head with part of the body went above one of the eyes so that it formed an eyebrow, and the tail with a part of the body went over the other eye to form the other eyebrow.
This mask was decked with a great and lofty crown, full of rich feathers, very long and beautiful, so that on placing the crown on the head, the mask was placed over the face...

Pic 2: Drawing of a warrior wearing a headdress and mosaic mask. From a relief sculpture from the Great Ball Court, Chichén Itzá.  After Maudslay 1895-1902.  From Elizabeth Carmichael, Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico (London, 1970), p.8.
Pic 2: Drawing of a warrior wearing a headdress and mosaic mask. From a relief sculpture from the Great Ball Court, Chichén Itzá. After Maudslay 1895-1902. From Elizabeth Carmichael, Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico (London, 1970), p.8. (Click on image to enlarge)

Much of Moctezuma’s treasure was presented by Cortés to the Habsburg Emperor Charles V and other items trickled into Europe following the conquest. A few mosaics are listed, not always accurately, in European inventories from the 16th century onwards. Some of these have now been lost. However, many more appear to have been dislodged from private and ecclesiastical collections by revolution, financial crises and the Napoleonic Wars, largely, it would seem, from Italy. Also, as these appeared, curators of old collections began to identify and appreciate the mosaics which they held. The British Museum has nine, of the finest quality, all acquired in the 19th century. In most instances our knowledge of their origins – their provenance – is very vague. Only one can be traced back to the 16th century, although not with certainty.

Pic 3: The nine Mexica-Mixtec turquoise mosaics in the British Museum.
Pic 3: The nine Mexica-Mixtec turquoise mosaics in the British Museum. (Click on image to enlarge)

Historical research has today been revolutionised by the advent of the world-wide web. Obscure books and articles which might have taken months or years to find can be accessed through keywords, although sometimes only partially. Individuals can, for example, be traced through on-line census data and general searches of the web. More complex electronic resources are available in libraries. The recent conference on turquoises at the British Museum seemed an appropriate moment, therefore, to see if more could be discovered about the history of the BM’s mosaics. It is a fascinating 19th-century world of often anonymous vendors and dealers, of dispersed collections, ruined families. There are glimpses of the great auction houses of London and Paris and devious bidding. Among the individuals linked to the mosaics are the fabulously rich Prince Anatole Demidoff, known to the French as ‘Prince Decomposition’, the ultra-aristocratic Princess Teresa Doria, forced into a disastrous marriage with Duke Massimo, William Chaffers, pawnbroker, who turned himself into author and art consultant, Henry Christy, Quaker banker, hatter, Mexican traveller and palaeontologist, and the BM’s great curator and donor A W Franks who has been described as the BM’s second founder.

Pic 4: Henry Christy (1810-65), donor of three mosaics (Pic 3, top). Three more (centre) were purchased from the Christy Fund and a further three (bottom) were bought by A W Franks and given to the Christy collection.
Pic 4: Henry Christy (1810-65), donor of three mosaics (Pic 3, top). Three more (centre) were purchased from the Christy Fund and a further three (bottom) were bought by A W Franks and given to the Christy collection. (Click on image to enlarge)

This article will consider the first turquoise mosaics acquired by the British Museum - a group of three which were bequeathed by Henry Christy (1860-65). Christy had a particular interest in Mexico following his travels there with Edward Tylor in 1856. It is not surprising, therefore, that when three turquoise mosaics from Mexico appeared in the saleroom in 1859, as part of the Bram Hertz Collection, now owned and sold by Joseph Mayer of Liverpool, Christy was prepared to spend a total of £113 on their purchase. These, the three mosaics in the Christy Bequest, are: (1) a ‘sacrificial’ knife (Am St.399); (2) a mask possibly of Xiuhtecuhtli (Am St.400); (3) a decorated human skull (Am St.401).

Pic 5: (Top L) sacrifice knife, BM Am St.399; (Bottom L) description of the same knife by Edward Tylor, ‘Anahuac’ (1861) p 101; (R) curious knife, from ‘Musaeum Metallicum...’ by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1648), Book 1 p. 156.
Pic 5: (Top L) sacrifice knife, BM Am St.399; (Bottom L) description of the same knife by Edward Tylor, ‘Anahuac’ (1861) p 101; (R) curious knife, from ‘Musaeum Metallicum...’ by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1648), Book 1 p. 156. (Click on image to enlarge)

Bram Hertz is a shadowy figure. The Edinburgh Magazine of 1852 provided an unflattering description: ‘a little, round, oily-faced German ... remarkably fond of tobacco’ and gave an account of a visit to ‘the most curious repository of nick-nacks the world contains – being the gatherings of thirty years, at a cost of thirty thousand pounds’ stored ‘from cellar to garret’ at Hertz’s premises in Argyll Street and Great Marlborough Street in London. Hertz was Jewish, born in Hanover around 1794, but with connections in Frankfurt on Main. He appears to have been operating in London by at least the early 1830s, initially as a diamond merchant, but also acting as both dealer and collector. He published a catalogue of his collection in 1851 – possibly the first appearance of the turquoise mosaics in print since the 17th century. Although they were numerically overshadowed by Hertz’s three-and-a-half thousand other objects, it is evident that they were regarded by their owner as of particular importance.

Pic 6: Joseph Mayer of Liverpool, Bebington Library, LIverpool.
Pic 6: Joseph Mayer of Liverpool, Bebington Library, LIverpool. (Click on image to enlarge)

At some point there enters Joseph Mayer (1803-86) of Liverpool, rich silversmith and collector, who seems to have coveted the Hertz collection which is said to have ‘surpassed his own in size.’ Henry Christy also emerges, writing to Hertz on 2 February 1858, presumably asking about the provenance of Mexican objects which interested him, and receiving a reply on 5 February from Frankfurt setting out what Hertz could recall. Hertz’s letter is rather vague but it is the best information we have about the provenance of the three mosaics.

Pic 7: Title page of the Catalogue of Bram Hertz’s 1854 sale.
Pic 7: Title page of the Catalogue of Bram Hertz’s 1854 sale. (Click on image to enlarge)

Quite who sold, or bought, what and when, is now difficult to disentangle. There were three auction sales of Hertz material in the 1850s: 1854 (Sotheby’s), 1857 (Phillips) and 1859 (Sotheby’s). The turquoise mask, knife and skull are listed in the catalogue of Hertz’s first Sotheby’s sale which took place in April 1854. Here they were lumped together with 650 classical objects, 24 Indian bronzes, 7 Chinese antiquities and half a dozen Peruvian pots most of which give the impression of not being a first-rank selection – perhaps a clearing out operation. The mosaics were, however, thought to be of sufficient importance to appear on the front cover of the catalogue, in ornate capital letters, described as ‘Mexican Antiquities of the Highest Interest, Consisting of a Mask and Sacrificial Knife, and a Human Scull, inlaid with Turquoise’ (Pic 7). Hertz wrote: ‘These three objects may be considered as unique, there is no record in any catalogue of the great public museums, that such monuments of the ancient Mexican people are in existence.’ (Pic 8).

Pic 8: Part of Hertz’s description of the three Mexican antiquities in his 1854 sale catalogue at Sotheby’s.
Pic 8: Part of Hertz’s description of the three Mexican antiquities in his 1854 sale catalogue at Sotheby’s. (Click on image to enlarge)

In an annotated sale catalogue now in the British Library the group of three mosaics is shown as having been acquired by a Mr Rowsell or Rousell for 14 guineas (the name is difficult to read). Although the names of over thirty buyers are given in this catalogue, it may be that some of them were nominees buying on behalf of Mayer and a consortium of Liverpool businessmen said to be acting altruistically with the intention of donating the collection to their city. Joseph Mayer is said to have acquired the Hertz collection in 1856 and a figure of £12,000 has been mentioned. It has also been suggested that Mayer may have over-reached himself financially and had to recoup his outlay. At all events, in March 1857, The Times reported that after a ‘quarter of a century’ and because of ill health Hertz was selling his collection prior to leaving England in search of a warmer climate. This second sale, of around 450 objets d’art and vertu, not including the mosaics, took place that month at Phillips with Mayer listed as the vendor.

Pic 9: Drawing by Norman Hardy in 1912 of the British Museum turquoise skull mask
Pic 9: Drawing by Norman Hardy in 1912 of the British Museum turquoise skull mask (Click on image to enlarge)

Hertz states in his letter to Christy that the mask and the sacrificial knife belonged to ‘a celebrated collection at Florence’ the sale of which, he thought, ‘took place some twenty odd years ago’ – that is, in the 1830s. It has not so far been possible to establish which collection since, given the turmoil of the times, there is a long list of potential vendors amongst the impoverished Florentine nobility. Hertz said that he did not acquire the knife and mask direct from Italy but picked them up in London. He writes that the knife came from ‘Mr Pratts in New Bond Street who brought this also from Venice’ – which is a little confusing since in the previous paragraph of his letter he stated that both mask and knife ‘belonged to a celebrated collection at Florence’. This is presumably the infamous Samuel Luke Pratt, of 47 New Bond Street, proprietor of an antique furniture business, today remembered for his manufacture of antique armour, which later passed as original.

Pic 10: Drawing of the BM skull mask by Miguel Covarrubias, from ‘Indian Art of Mexico & Central America’ opp. p. 316
Pic 10: Drawing of the BM skull mask by Miguel Covarrubias, from ‘Indian Art of Mexico & Central America’ opp. p. 316 (Click on image to enlarge)

The mask, Hertz said, ‘was acquired by a certain Descriever who at the time was travelling as courier with an English family and settled afterwards as a curiosity dealer in London.’ Now that it is possible to search the 1841 Census by name it is evident that no Descriever is listed. However, there is a François or Francis Deschryver, born abroad about 1801, then resident at 3 Great Newport Street, who is described as an ‘antique furniture dealer’. He is almost certainly the source of the mask. Deschryver died at some date between 6 June (the Census) and 16 September 1841 when The Times recorded the birth of a posthumous child. There is in the National Art Library at the V&A an earlier manuscript reference to a ’Deschryver’ as the vendor of some 95 paintings ‘just imported from the Continent’ in the catalogue of a sale held by the auction house of Foster in May 1834. If this is François Deschryver it could indicate that he was by then established in London as a dealer. This might therefore place the sale of the Florentine collection prior to 1834. This is supported by an 1841 catalogue, advertising the posthumous sale of Deschryver’s collection, which mentions that he was ‘for many years an importer’.

Pic 11: Turquoise tribute, Codex Mendoza (folio 40r).
Pic 11: Turquoise tribute, Codex Mendoza (folio 40r). (Click on image to enlarge)

Hertz mentions in his letter to Christy that he found a note in the case containing the mask stating that ‘it belonged to a convent of nuns at Mozza [sic] and that it was of Egyptian origin ...’ He adds that the vendor of the mask (presumably Deschryver) asked £300 for it but ‘I got it from him in exchange and it stood me about £80’. If it were possible to trace Deschryver’s travels in Italy, through published memoirs or manuscripts, we might be closer to establishing the name of the ‘celebrated Florentine collection’.
The mask and knife were definitely in Hertz’s hands by 28 January 1843 when they were exhibited by him at a meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society. Hertz writes of this event:-
Professor Wilson was in the chair, who doubted them to be of Mexican origin, as he argued that no Turquoise were found in Mexico, I replied that I was aware of that, but that Mexicans had communications with other countries, who might have supplied the material for these articles.

Pic 12: ‘The inside and outside of an Aztec mask’ in Henry Christy’s collection, from ‘Anahuac’ by Edward Tylor (1861), p. 227
Pic 12: ‘The inside and outside of an Aztec mask’ in Henry Christy’s collection, from ‘Anahuac’ by Edward Tylor (1861), p. 227 (Click on image to enlarge)

Since it was not displayed at the Royal Asiatic Society, it can be inferred that Hertz acquired the human skull after the beginning of 1843. He states in his 1858 letter:-
The skull was in a Collection at Bruges which was sold about 12 years ago, as also a wig which was described as a scalp. On the scull there is a material which is called obsidian, and which is found in great abundance in Mexico...

Pic 13: Title page from the sale catalogue of Joseph van Heurne’s collection, Ghent, 1844. (Art Sales Catalogues on line).
Pic 13: Title page from the sale catalogue of Joseph van Heurne’s collection, Ghent, 1844. (Art Sales Catalogues on line).  (Click on image to enlarge)

What follows is, so far, speculation. It is possible that Hertz could be referring to a private sale, but there is only one public auction listed in Art Sales Catalogues on line which took place in Bruges in the 1840s and which contained antiquities and miscellaneous objects (the other two listed were of paintings or prints). The immense collection of the rich landowner and aristocrat Joseph van Heurne (1752-1844), built up over half a century, auctioned at Bruges in October 1844 after his death at the age of 91, thus stands out as a possible source of Hertz’s acquisition. The sale catalogue lists almost 2,000 items: 288 paintings, 198 drawings, 535 prints, 69 sculptures, 54 porcelains, 179 natural history objects, and 603 ivories, enamels, antiquities and miscellaneous objects. The majority of the objects are European, but van Heurne did have more universal interests. There are, for example, ceramics from China, Japanese lacquer work, a Honduran hammock, a Senegalese princess’s apron, an American peace pipe, 40 pairs of miscellaneous shoes and 12 kinds of East Indian tobacco, to name but a few.

Pic 14: Entry No. 483 in van Heurne’s 1844 sale catalogue listing a ‘Vanitas’ of unknown origin.
Pic 14: Entry No. 483 in van Heurne’s 1844 sale catalogue listing a ‘Vanitas’ of unknown origin. (Click on image to enlarge)

Listed in the catalogue, amongst 84 ‘Objets divers’ is item 483:-
483. Un Vanitas d’une composition vraiment extraordinaire, consistant en une caisse sur la porte de laquelle on a réprésenté la portrait d’une jeune femme; à l’intérieur se trouve un crane sur la face duquel on a appliqué des pierreries en mosaïque, les yeux sont en marcassite. A l’intérieur de la porte il y ‘a 8 vers latins relatifs au sujet. On croit que cette pièce date du milieu du l6eme siècle.
[483. A ‘Vanitas’ of a truly extraordinary composition, consisting of a box on the door of which is a portrait of a young woman; inside can be found a skull on the face of which has been applied a mosaic of precious stones, the eyes are of marcasite. On the interior of the door are 8 Latin verses relating to the subject. It is thought that this piece dates to the middle of the sixteenth century.]

Pic 15: Drawing of a figure wearing a skull as part of his costume. From the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (folio 39). British Museum BM Add. MS 39671
Pic 15: Drawing of a figure wearing a skull as part of his costume. From the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (folio 39). British Museum BM Add. MS 39671 (Click on image to enlarge)

It seems very likely that this is the British Museum’s skull. The date and place are right, given that Hertz’s letter is rather vague. ‘Vanitas’ paintings were popular, particularly in Northern Europe, in the 16th and 17th centuries, although this assemblage of actual objects seems to be unusual. A still-life miscellany would be depicted with a human skull – a reminder of the transience of life. If this is indeed the BM’s skull one puzzle might be solved. In Hertz’s 1858 letter to Christy and in both the 1854 and 1859 sales catalogues the skull was, for no obvious reason, accompanied by a wig or scalp. It would make sense if this were part of the Vanitas ensemble – a portrait of a young woman outside but concealed inside a box a reminder of the brevity of life – a death’s head with flowing locks.

Pic 16: The British Museum’s turquoise mosaic human skull, Am St.401
Pic 16: The British Museum’s turquoise mosaic human skull, Am St.401 (Click on image to enlarge)

Edward Tylor in his book Anahuac (1861) suggests that the Bruges origin of the skull indicates that it could have arrived in the Low Countries between 1521 and the expulsion of the Spaniards in 1579. In this case it might have been in the collection of the governor, Margaret of Austria. It has, however, to be admitted that the scope of van Heurne’s collection was wide. Later travellers might have brought back such a curiosity. It could have been lodged in a church or convent since during the revolutionary period, when churches were closed or demolished and their treasures scattered and sold, van Heurne acquired all he could. At all events, whatever their history, the three mosaics appeared in the Hertz/Mayer 1859 sale and were bought by Henry Christy.

Pic 17: Title page of the catalogue of the Hertz/Mayer 1859 sale.
Pic 17: Title page of the catalogue of the Hertz/Mayer 1859 sale. (Click on image to enlarge)

Christy bequeathed his collection and a substantial sum of money (£5,000) for its upkeep and expansion to four trustees including British Museum’s A W Franks. Persuaded by Franks, they rapidly agreed to the collection’s transfer to the BM. Three more turquoise mosaics were subsequently purchased from the Christy Fund and a further three were bought and donated by Franks. Like the three Christy pieces all pose intriguing questions as to their whereabouts since the Spanish conquest of Mexico which might be answered by further research.

Pic 18: The ‘spotty’ mask, third of the Henry Christy turquoise bequests to the British Museum, Am St.400
Pic 18: The ‘spotty’ mask, third of the Henry Christy turquoise bequests to the British Museum, Am St.400 (Click on image to enlarge)

REFERENCES
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 71, May 1852, p. 603
• British Museum, Henry Christy: A Pioneer of Anthropology (Exhibition Catalogue, 1965)
• Elizabeth Carmichael, Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico (London, 1970)
• Margaret Gibson and Susan M. Wright (eds), Joseph Mayer of Liverpool 1803-1886 (Society of Antiquaries in association with the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. Occasional Papers (New Series), xi, (1988)
• Colin McEwan, Andrew Middleton, Caroline Cartwright and Rebecca Stacey, Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico (London, 2006)
• C.H. Read, ‘On an Ancient Mexican Headpiece coated with Mosaic’, Archaeologia, 14 (1895), pp. 383-98
• Marshall H. Saville, Turquois Mosaic Art in Ancient Mexico (New York, 1922)
• Edward B. Tylor, Description of three very rare specimens of an ancient Mexican mosaic work (in the collections of Henry Christy, Esq.), Appendix 5 to Anahuac: Or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern (1861)
CATALOGUES:-
Catalogue des Collections de Tableaux, Dessins, Gravures, Antiquités, Curiosités, et Objects d’Histoire Naturelle formant le Cabinet Van Heurne ... (Gand [Ghent], 1844)
Catalogue of the Collection of Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Indian, Peruvian and Mexican Antiquities formed by B. Hertz ... (London, 1851)
Catalogue of a very interesting portion of the valuable and important collection of antiquities, the property of B. Hertz, Esq. ... (Sotheby’s, London, 29 May 1854)
Catalogue of the celebrated and well-known collection ... formed by B. Hertz ... now the property of Joseph Mayer, Esq. ... (Sotheby’s, London, 7 February 1859)

Pic 19: Drawings of turquoise mosaic pieces and mosaic-and-feather diadems, from Marshall Saville ‘Turquois Mosaic Art in Ancient Mexico’ (1922) pp. 25 & 58
Pic 19: Drawings of turquoise mosaic pieces and mosaic-and-feather diadems, from Marshall Saville ‘Turquois Mosaic Art in Ancient Mexico’ (1922) pp. 25 & 58 (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 3, 4, 5 (top L), 9, 16, 18: photos © The Trustees of the British Museum, Department: Africa, Oceania & the Americas
• Pic 2: scanned from our copy of Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael, Trustees of the British Museum, 1970
• Pic 3: (collage by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)
• Pic 5 (bottom L) & 12: scanned from our copy of Anahuac: or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern by Edward B. Tylor, London, Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861
• Pic 5 (R): from Musaeum metallicum in libros 4 distributum Bartholomaeus Ambrosinus ... labore, et studio composuit cum indice copiosissimo by Aldrovandi, Ulisse, Alm@-DL è la Biblioteca Digitale dell’Università di Bologna (online archive)
• Pic 6: Photo of Joseph Mayer taken as a preliminary for Fontana’s 1869 statue of Mayer, Mayer Papers Bebington, courtesy of Bebington Library, LIverpool
• Pic 7: © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
• Pix 8, 13, 14 & 17: courtesy Marjorie Caygill
• Pic 10: scanned from our copy of Indian Art of Mexico & Central America by Miguel Covarrubias, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957
• Pic 11: image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian LIbrary, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 15: image from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (original in the British Museum) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1987
• Pic 19: scanned from our own copy of Turquois Mosaic Art in Ancient Mexico by Marshall H. Saville, Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation, New York, 1922

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 05th 2010

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