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Hitler’s ‘Renaissance’ jewels fashioned in the 19th century

Rijksmuseum’s examinations reveal truth about pendants

Amsterdam

Conservators from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam have determined that two ornate gold, ruby and pearl pendants, acquired by Hitler for his planned museum in Linz and masquerading as Renaissance works, are not what they seem. Scientific research has revealed that one of the jewels—a mermaid—is a 19th-century fake, while the figure of a horse and rider is a pastiche made from Renaissance and 19th-century components.

The “southern German” horseman and “Italian” mermaid, originally thought to date from the 16th or 17th centuries, came from the collection of the German banker Fritz Mannheimer, who probably bought them from dealers in Germany or the Netherlands.

Curators at the museum recently questioned the authenticity of the pendants on stylistic grounds. Three metal conservators—Suzanne van Leeuwen, Joosje van Bennekom and Sara Creange—conducted a technical examination focusing on the enamels (these are made from glass coloured with metal oxides). The team used X-ray fluorescence equipment to determine the qualitative composition of the enamels.

A study of the horseman showed that the yellow enamel on the underside of the pedestal contains a high concentration of uranium—an element used widely as a glass colourant after 1830. They also found arsenic in the enamel connecting the chain, a substance used in the 19th century to make opaque white.

The enamel of the horse and rider are in poorer condition than the frame, which suggests that they are older. Soldering—a technique used much more widely in the 19th century than during the Renaissance—was used on the frame, but not on the horse and rider. Conservators concluded that the piece was a pastiche—a Renaissance horse and rider mounted in a 19th-century frame.

An examination of the mermaid told a similar story. A high concentration of lead—a metal only used in enamels from the 19th century—was found in the transparent enamels. There is chromium in the green enamel, antimony in the red enamel and arsenic in the white enamel. All of these findings confirm a 19th-century date. Van Leeuwen says it was made “in its entirety in the 19th century or even later”. Marine figures were popular then, which may explain the choice of motif.

Voracious collector

Mannheimer was appointed the director of the Amsterdam branch of the Berlin-based Mendelssohn Bank in 1920. A voracious collector, he faced financial problems in the 1930s, and, under an unusual arrangement, the bank bought his large collection and lent it back to him. He died in 1939 and his widow then emigrated to the US, where she married the mining tycoon Charles Engelhard, the inspiration for Goldfinger in Ian Fleming’s popular 1959 James Bond novel.

When the Nazis occupied Amsterdam in 1940, Mannheimer’s collection was bought for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum and taken for safekeeping to the monastery of Hohenfurth in what is now the Czech Republic, and later to a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria. After the Second World War, the collection was brought to Münich and returned to the Netherlands in 1946. The Dutch government lent the collection to the Rijksmuseum in 1952 and ownership was transferred in 1960.

The conservators’ findings are reported in the latest issue of the Rijksmuseum Bulletin. They now hope to examine the museum’s remaining 40 Renaissance jewels, although none has the stylistic inconsistencies of the horseman and the mermaid.