8 Historical Treasures Unwittingly Used as Common Household Items
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.