8 Historical Treasures Unwittingly Used as Common Household Items

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Just because an artifact is ancient or historically significant or even sought after for years doesn't mean its owner is aware of it. Here are eight historical treasures that were used as common household items by owners who had no idea their random things were actually valuable antiquities.

1. MAZARIN'S GOLD LACQUER CHEST // TV STAND AND BAR

In 1970, a French engineer bought a lacquer chest from his landlord in South Kensington, London, for £100. He used it as a TV stand for 16 years. When he retired to the Loire Valley in 1986, the chest came with him. In France, he used it as a bar. After his death in 2013, his survivors had specialists from the Rouillac auction house appraise his estate in Touraine—and Philippe Rouillac recognized that the bar was a 17th century Japanese gold, silver, copper and mother of pearl chest that had once belonged to Chief Minister of the King of France, Cardinal Mazarin.

The chest was one of a set made by Kaomi Nagashige of Kyoto, official lacquer-maker to the Tokugawa shoguns, for Dutch East India Company official François Caron in around 1640. Caron exported them to the Netherlands, expecting to sell them for an exorbitant sum, but the Thirty Years' War got in the way. Mazarin finally bought the two largest chests in 1658 and had them sent to France on a warship.

They remained in the Mazarin family until the French Revolution when they were bought at an all-aristocratic-geegaws-must-go firesale by an enterprising haberdasher. He sold them to English collector William Beckford, who took them home with him. The two chests were separated in 1882 when the Victoria & Albert Museum bought the smaller one. The big one passed through several hands over the next 90 years, and the V&A desperately wanted to find it. Articles about it appeared in print magazines and, once the internet became a thing, online, expressing fervent hope that the chest had survived the Blitz and was just holed away in an attic by an unaware owner.

They got the unaware owner part right, anyway. At auction in 2013, Mazarin's Lost Gold Chest was bought by the Rijksmuseum for 7.3 million euros ($9.5 million).

2. A BRONZE AGE CEREMONIAL DIRK // DOORSTOP

When a farmer plowing his field in East Rudham, Norfolk, in 2002 churned up a large piece of bent green metal, he assumed it was a broken piece of machinery. Being a practical fellow, he put the four-pound object to work as a doorstop for the next decade. Eventually he tired of it and was considering throwing it away when a friend suggested he have it examined by a local archaeologist first, just in case. Andrew Rogerson, Senior Historic Environment Officer of Norfolk's Identification and Recording Service, recognized that the farmer's doorstop was in fact about 3500 years old and one of only six known oversized Bronze Age ceremonial dirks in the world.

It's 27 inches long, the edges have never been sharpened, and it lacks the rivetholes that would have been there had a handle ever been attached, so it was certainly not a usable dagger. The other five that have been unearthed—two in France, two in the Netherlands, one also in Norfolk, England—are so similar in form, dimension, and decoration that they are believed to have come from the same workshop. This was a prestige object, extremely valuable, extremely expensive, and likely bent for ritual purposes in a symbolic act of destruction before it was buried.

The Rudham Dirk was acquired for £41,000 ($56,877) by the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, where it's now on display.

3. A ROMAN SARCOPHAGUS // GARDEN PLANTER

The trend for sarcophagus garden planters took root in the 18th century when the scions of wealthy families brought back ancient artifacts by the cartload from their Grand Tours. Genuine archaeological treasures being a finite resource, Italy was soon replete with fakes sold as the real article, and by the late 19th century, replica sarcophagus and urn forms with no pretense at antiquity were popular garden accessories in Britain and the U.S.

That's why homeowners in Dorset had no idea the weathered, grey, moss-covered 7-foot trough once used to hold flower pots in their garden was, in fact, a Roman marble sarcophagus from the 2nd or 3rd century CE. It was appraiser Guy Schwinge with Duke's Auctioneers in Dorchester who spotted the archaeological treasure peeking out from under overgrown bushes. Its elegantly carved reliefs of a temple door and laurel garlands marked it as a high quality piece that once held the remains of a wealthy Roman.

While looking through their stuff in the house, Schwinge found an old auction catalogue from 1913 that explained the sarcophagus had been imported from Italy by Queen Victoria's surveyor of pictures, Sir John Robinson. It was auctioned (by Duke's, no less) after his death and purchased by the ancestors of the current homeowners.

The wheel came full circle when Duke's sold the sarcophagus at a 2012 auction for £96,000 ($133,000).

4. ANOTHER ROMAN SARCOPHAGUS // GARDEN PLANTER

A retired couple in Newcastle, northeastern England, read news stories about the Dorset jackpot and wondered if maybe the 6-foot 9-inch marble planter at the end of their garden—which was already in the garden when they bought the house—might be an ancient funerary artifact as well. They sent Guy Schwinge a few pictures and he hightailed it to Newcastle.

When he arrived, he found the piece sitting on the grass with plants inside. He confirmed that it was indeed a Roman sarcophagus from the 1st or 2nd century CE made of highly prized white Carrara marble. It's a strigilated sarcophagus, named for the panels of s-shaped swirls known as strigils after the curved scraping tool Romans used to remove dirt and sweat from the skin. This design was exclusively the product of workshops in the city of Rome itself. It has a central panel carved with the Three Graces, and panels at each end depict a putti holding a torch. The sides are decorated with winged griffins.

The back is rough hewn, which indicates it was meant for use in a family mausoleum, more confirmation that this was a wealthy person's coffin. A copper plaque on the back is inscribed "Bought From Rome 1902." Schwinge's research indicates it was probably brought to Newcastle in 1969 when the previous owners of the house moved there from a country estate in the Lake District.

Duke's got to auction off this one too. It was sold in 2013 for £40,000 ($55,400).

5. A 1000-YEAR-OLD SRI LANKAN TEMPLE MOONSTONE // GARDEN PAVER

Bronwyn Hickmott was 4 when her parents bought a house in East Sussex that had one intricately carved semi-circular granite paver in the garden path. She was captivated with the concentric bands of florals and animals and would spend hours tracing the figures with her fingers. After her parents died and the house was put on the market, she couldn't bear to part with the three-quarter ton, 8-foot-by-4-foot, 6-inch-thick granite slab she called "The Pebble." She removed it to her home and brought it with her every time she moved after that.

It was installed at the end of a concrete path in front of her bungalow in Devon when she happened to mention it to Bonhams appraiser Sam Tuke. Intrigued by her description, he had a look at the stone and identified it as a Sri Lankan Sandakada Pahana, or temple moonstone, from the Late Anuradhapura Period (10th/early 11th century). A thousand years before it found itself in England, it had graced the entrance to a temple in Anuradhapura, a sacred Buddhist city and a capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th century BCE to the 11th century CE.

The figures little Bronwyn had traced are symbols representing the life of the Buddha and the cycle of Samsara. Within the half-moon are concentric half-circles carved with Buddhist symbols. A half lotus blooms in the center, after which come a band of geese or swans, a band of foliage, a parade of four animals—elephant, horse, lion, and bull—and stylized flames on the outermost band.

It's an exceptionally rare artifact, one of only seven known from the period, and the other six are still in situ in front of stupas in Anuradhapura. The one in the Devon garden path was actually in better condition than the ones still in place because crowds of pilgrims and tourists haven't been stepping on it daily since Anuradhapura was reclaimed from the jungle in the late 19th century. Tuke's research found that the home in East Sussex had belonged to a tea planter who had lived in what was then known as Ceylon in the 1920s and '30s. He likely acquired it under circumstances of questionable legality.

Although the Sri Lankan Archaeology Department made noises about investigating the authenticity and origin of the piece, it did not pursue reclamation in court. The Sandakada Pahana was sold at auction in 2013 to an undisclosed buyer for £553,250 ($767,000), blowing through the pre-sale estimate of £20,000-30,000 ($27,750-41,600).

6. AN 18th CENTURY IMPERIAL CHINESE VASE // UMBRELLA STAND 

A retired couple on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset didn't much like the large blue and white vase they'd received as a gift more than 50 years prior. They thought it was ugly and stashed it in a junk room, where it was used to hold umbrellas. They took no great pains to keep it in pristine condition. Over the years, it developed a Y-shaped hairline crack and some paint stains.

It was spotted in a valuation walk-through by a valuer working with our old friend Guy Schwinge of Duke's. He recognized it as a Qing Dynasty lantern vase made circa 1740 by porcelain master Tang Ying. A mark on the bottom of the vase and at the peak of one of the mountains is the seal of the Qianlong Emperor. It is a one-of-a-kind piece likely inspired by a series of 17th century scroll paintings by Wang Hui.

It sold at Duke's in 2010 for £625,000 ($867,400), more than the value of the sellers' home and everything else in it combined. The vase probably would have sold for double the price had it not been damaged.

7. ARCHAEMENID GOLD CUP // AIR RIFLE TARGET

John Webber of Wellington, Somerset, was just a boy when his scrap metal dealer grandfather gave him what he thought was a brass mug before his death in 1945. The 5-inch cup was in the shape of two women's faces back-to-back with snakes on their foreheads. John used it as a target for his air rifle.

For decades he kept it in a shoe box under his bed until 2007, when he had appraised it before moving. That's when he discovered he'd been shooting at a Archaemenid Persian Janus cup beaten out of a single sheet of gold in the 3rd or 4th century BCE.

It was sold by Duke's at auction in June 2008 for a weirdly modest £50,000 ($69,400).

8. ANGLO-SAXON CARVING // CAT HEADSTONE

When Johnny and Ruth Beeston's dearly beloved cat Winkle went to his eternal rest 30 years ago, he was buried in their garden in Dowlish Wake, Somerset. Builder Johnny Beeston found the perfect headstone—a limestone carving of tonsured man with two fingers raised to his chest in benediction—at a salvage yard. In 2004, local amateur archaeologist and potter Chris Brewchorne walked by the garden and spotted Winkle's gravestone. He immediately understood that it was historically significant, and Ruth, now a widow and willing to sell the piece, had experts over to assess it.

It was identified as part of a larger sculpture, possibly a Christian cross, carved around 900 CE and later recycled as building material. The 18-by-17-inch stone has a partial inscription remaining on the top left. It reads "SC (S) (PE)TRVS," which is how we know the tonsured, clean-shaven fellow is meant to be Saint Peter. Where it was found is unknown, but the stone is native to the south Somerset area, so it was likely carved for a local religious institution. Muchelney Abbey, a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, was just 10 miles away from Winkle's final resting place.

Pre-Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon religious art is rare, and when Winkle's tombstone went up for auction in 2004, it was bought for £201,600 ($279,115) by an American expat, art collector and oil and timber heir Stanley J. Seeger. The Museum of Somerset was offered the piece first but they couldn't afford it; after Seeger's death, it went back on the market, and in 2015 it was acquired by the museum for £150,000.

Susan B. Anthony’s Childhood Home in Upstate New York Is Getting a $700,000 Renovation

George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1833, a 13-year-old Susan B. Anthony moved with her family to a two-story brick house in Battenville, New York, where her father managed a cotton mill. Though Anthony only lived there a few years before financial troubles caused her family to relocate once again, it was in that house that she first became aware of the deplorable state of women’s rights—setting her on a path to change the course of history.

According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Anthony’s father started homeschooling her after a local teacher refused to teach Anthony long division on the grounds that women didn’t need the skill. Then, a temporary stint at her father’s mill revealed that the wages of many female employees went directly to their husbands or fathers, and Anthony learned about the gender pay gap firsthand when she was hired as a schoolteacher for a much lower salary than her male predecessor.

Right now, there are only two small indicators of Anthony’s history in the Battenville house—a placard on a nearby stone retaining wall and a sign on a post in the front yard—and the house itself is riddled with black mold and moisture damage.

But that’ll change soon: House Beautiful reports that New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which purchased the foreclosed property for just $1 back in 2006, is now planning a $700,000 renovation that includes general repairs, drainage improvements, and mold abatement. A considerable portion of those funds was collected by Senator Betty Little and Assembly member Carrie Woerner.

Whether the house will eventually become a museum remains to be seen. It’s located on a perilous curve on Route 29, and there’s very limited surrounding land or space for parking. Having said that, locals are committed to finding a worthy purpose for it after the restoration is complete. Debi Craig, former president of the Washington County Historical Society, told the Times Union that she thinks there’s potential for an international research center or library on women’s rights.

Regardless of what the Battenville house’s second life ends up looking like, the focus on this particular historic site is perfectly timed—not only does 2020 mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it’s also Susan B. Anthony’s 200th birthday.

Learn more about the trailblazing suffragette here.

[h/t House Beautiful]

15 Facts About the Westminster Dog Show

Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

One of America's oldest sporting events is also its most slobbery. This year, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show returns to New York City for the 144th time, promising one preeminent pooch the coveted title of "Best in Show" and a lifetime supply of positive reinforcement. While the show has evolved over its many years, it remains a beguiling spectacle for dog fanatics and casual observers alike. Here are 15 facts to get you competition-ready.

1. The original show was for gun dogs.

Champion Stingray of Derryabah, aka Skipper, a British Lakeland Terrier, wins Best In Show at the 92nd Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Gardens, New York City, February 1968
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Around 1876, a group of sportsmen began to hold regular meet-ups in a Manhattan bar to swap hunting stories. Their trusty canine companions eventually made their way into the conversation, and the idea for a dog club was formed. The group met at a bar in The Westminster Hotel, and aptly named themselves the Westminster Breeding Association (later the Westminster Kennel Club). It was after helping to stage a dog show in Philadelphia that the group decided to hold their own to compare and showboat their pups.

The first show, featuring primarily Setters and Pointers, was an immediate success. A total of 1201 dogs entered the first year, with tens of thousands of spectators by the second day. The first prizes included such items as a "Gold and Silver Mounted Pearl Handled Revolver"—an appropriate reward for an active hunter.

2. The show has seen its share of tragedy.

A photo of J.P. Morgan.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A champion collie belonging to J.P. Morgan, who spent millions on his obsession with dogs and competed in Westminster regularly, drowned itself. Its trainer called the dog's death "a clear case of suicide" in an 1895 New York Times article.

3. You don't have to be young to win.

Vintage Westminster Dog Show photo.
Lady Iddo at the 53th Westminster Dog Show in 1935.
Imagno/Getty Images

In 2009, a 10-year-old Sussex spaniel named Stump (registered name: Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee) broke the record for oldest dog ever to win "Best in Show." He later appeared on the cover of AARP magazine.

4. Nepotism has made its way into the competition.

Westminster Dog Show 2019
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Dog-judging has always been subjective. Judges at the first modern dog show ever, in Newcastle in 1859, were also the owners of the show's two winners. Today, the Westminster Kennel Club website acknowledges that's it's not a precise science. "Each judge, applying their interpretation of the standard, gives their opinion on that day on which dog best represents its breed," it explains.

5. Life has imitated art.

A dog competes in the Masters Agility Championship during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2018.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Parker Posey, famous for playing a manic, metal-mouthed Weimaraner-owner in the 2000 dog show parody Best in Show, has also spent some time backstage at the Westminster Dog Show. As she told The Wire at the 2014 WKC Dog Show, she met some personalities resembling her own persnickety character while on set: "[Director Christopher Guest] brought over a professional groomer. She came over right before a take and she criticized our dog. She said, 'The coat's all wrong.'"

6. The top dog gets the royal treatment.

The 2019 winner of the Westminster Dog Show.
Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

The winner of the Westminster Dog Show traditionally eats a celebratory lunch at famed Broadway watering hole Sardi's—breaking New York City's health codes which prevent animals from entering restaurants.

7. It's not all about good looks.

Maximus from the Westminster Dog Show 2019.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The show doesn't only value looks. A two-legged dog named Nellie participated in the first Westminster show ever in 1877, and 1980's "Best in Show" was a true underdog: Cinnar, a Siberian husky missing part of its ear, won with handler Trish Kanzler—one of the few amateurs to ever win the title.

8. The dogs are refined, but their names sometimes aren't.

Westminster Dog Show 2015 photo.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The 2015 WKC Dog Show featured a Pomeranian named Starfire's Spank Me Hard Call Me Crazy, a basset hound named Easthill Broxden Woodland Lettuce Entertain You, and a border terrier named McHill's His Royal Highness Prince Gizmo House of Gremlin.

9. Things have even turned criminal.

A very good boy at a dog show.
MarijaRadovic/iStock via Getty Images

Eight dogs belonging to one prominent New York City dog breeder were poisoned during the 1895 Westminster Dog Show. Despite the story making the front page of The New York Times, no suspect was ever prosecuted for the crime.

10. A bunch of your favorite breeds have never won "best in show."

A chihuahua poking its head out.
Paffy69/iStock via Getty Images

Despite being a favorite among dog-lovers, there has never been a chihuahua, Great Dane, dachshund, or golden retriever crowned "Best in Show." Here's the full list of breeds to never win, as of 2019.

11. Mutts are slowly making their way into the competition.

A dog looking at the camera.
BiancaGrueneberg/iStock via Getty Images

In 2014, mutts, a.k.a. "All-Americans," were allowed to participate in Westminster's Agility Championship for the first time since 1884—but they’re still ineligible for "Best in Show."

12. Labs are voted most popular, but not head of the class.

Lacey, a Labrador, runs through a sport course during a press preview for the Westminster Dog Show on February 12, 2015 in New York City
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Despite being the most popular dog in the country, a Labrador retriever has never won "Best in Show." The reason? Experts say their friendly temperament prevents them from desiring the spotlight. Labs can also be disqualified for deviating by half an inch from height standards (between 22.5 and 24.5 inches for males and 21.5 and 23.5 for females)—a regulation that was nearly challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994.

13. Some practices are ancient—and weird.

A dog receiving a prize at a dog show.
Apple Tree House/iStock via Getty Images

While nowadays some breeders cut their dogs' tails for aesthetic reasons, the practice originated with 5th century BCE Greek statesman Alcibiades, who cut the tail of his dog so that the Athenians would have something else to talk about rather than Alcibiades.

14. The dogs have friends (and relatives) in high places.

A photo of a Portuguese water dog.
Ines Arnshoff/iStock via Getty Images

Matisse the Portuguese water dog (officially registered as GCH Claircreek Impression De Matisse) has quite the pedigree. In addition to being the most decorated male show dog in the United States, he is also related to the country's former First Family; his cousin, Sunny, belongs to the Obama family.

15. Naturally, there have been some great underdog stories.

A very tiny dog at the Westminster Dog Show.
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Tickle Em Jock, "Best in Show" winner at the 1911 Westminster Dog Show, was a Scottish terrier and a dark horse to boot. His original owner was a butcher who sold him for 2 pounds (or about $15), which turned out to be the Scottish terrier's lucky break. After a few years with trainer Andrew Albright, Tickle Em Jock was valued at $5000. Once, after winning the title of "best of breed," the scrappy champ bit a judge's wrist.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

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