Yes, indeed, the Folger collection item the March 2020 Crocodile Mystery is two-toned because of fading (and yes, indeed, it is a tapestry). Congratulations and thanks to Elisabeth, Ed, and Carolyn for their comments. The mystery wasn’t quite solved, though: the darker areas were not protected from light by being folded under or covered by something opaque, as was proposed in the comments. In fact, the dark parts have received more light than the pale parts by virtue of having been around longer, since those portions date to between about 1490 and 1500. The pale parts are modern restorations. Only the upper left, the mid-section, and part of the lower section toward the right, are old.
At first, I thought the light parts were an example of what’s known as visible restoration, a type of conservation where the added portions are easily distinguished from the original. Visible restoration allows the viewer to get a sense of what the full design could have looked like while treading carefully through the ethical minefield of fakery and forgery.1 My assumption began to fall apart when I realized the tapestry, in its recreated state, was among the original furnishings in the Founders’ Room when the Folger Shakespeare Library opened in 1932. That would be awfully early for such a stark example of visible restoration.
The tapestry can be traced back to the private museum created by Georges Spetz (1844–1914), who is described on his monument in Issenheim, France, as an “industrialist, collector, poet, musician, painter, and patron of the arts.”2 The Spetz collection remained intact until January 1925, when it was sold at auction in New York.
The New York Times covered the four-day sale, beginning with an article on January 11, 1925 headed “Rare Art Objects Offered at Sale—Collection in Museum of George Spetz Now on View at American Galleries—Old Laces and Tapestries—Porcelains, Renaissance Silver and Furniture Among Articles to Be Sold This Week.” It was a pretty big deal. The Folger tapestry came up on the last day of the sale, as lot 830. According to the annotation in the copy of the catalogue at the Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art (scanned for the Internet Archive) it sold for $2,500.
A note printed at the bottom of the description assures readers “This interesting tapestry is unique in composition and is in a remarkably fine state of preservation.” As it happens, however, the composition is not unique, and the remarkably fine state of preservation is confined to the original portion.3 The scholarly publication that could have clarified both points was still in press at the time, so the cataloger did their best with what they had.
The tapestry is catalogued in Betty Kurth’s massive three-volume survey of German medieval tapestries, Die Deutschen Bildteppiche des Mittelalters (Vienna, Anton Schrott & Co., 1926), and illustrated as the lower image in plate 83:
The catalog description for 83b states that only the middle section is old, with the upper and lower portions being new additions (“neue Ergänzungen”). Enough of the middle section survives to show that the design is the same as the tapestry illustrated above it, which is in the Basel Historical Museum. Presumably the Basel tapestry provided the model for the restoration.4
Collation readers will undoubtedly have noticed that plate 83b in Die Deutschen Bildteppiche des Mittelalters does not show the same strong contrast between the dark middle section and the pale upper and lower sections of the tapestry. How do we know the book illustration shows the tapestry that’s now in the Folger collection? We know because the book illustration is a collotype reproduction, not a half-tone. If you look closely at the illustration, you don’t see a screen of dots making up the picture, you can actually see the texture of the tapestry’s weft. It matches the Folger tapestry line-for-line, including the tonal shift (very slight in the illustration) between the old and new portions.
For comparison’s sake, here’s a magnified detail of a high-quality half-tone illustration from the “Tapestry” article in The Dictionary of Art (New York: Grove, 1996).
This brings us back to the question of visible restoration. I really wanted this tapestry to be an early example of the phenomenon, and hypothesized that the contrast in both the 1925 auction sale catalog image and the 1926 book image had been flattened in order to make the tapestry more attractive looking. If only I could find an unretouched image of the tapestry from the 1920s or 1930s…. and then I found one. So much for my hypothesis.
According to Theodor Horydczak’s log book, the picture was taken during a 1931 photo shoot. The unretouched negative survives in his archive at the Library of Congress. There’s no startling difference between the dark middle section and the pale upper and lower portions, there’s just a tapestry hanging in bright sunlight, facing south. As far as I know, it remained there, above the fireplace in the Founders’ Room, until the late 1970s.
My new hypothesis: the restoration used to be a good color match for the original, but for some reason the new yarn was much more sensitive to light than the old yarn.
- See David A. Scott, Art: Authenticity, Restoration, Forgery (Los Angeles: The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2016) for a scholarly but accessible history of the topic, with case studies.
- “Industriel, collectioneur, poète, musicien, peintre, mécène” in the original French; my translation.
- Another note, at the top of the page, says “Kindly read the Conditions under which every item is offered and sold. They are printed in the forepart of the Catalogue.” Section IX. of the Conditions reads “guaranty is not made either by the owner or the Association of the correctness of the description, genuineness, authenticity or condition of any lot and no sale will be set aside on account of any incorrectness, error of cataloging or imperfection not noted or pointed out.”
- Notice that Kurth gives the location of the Folger tapestry as “Schlettstadt, Bibliothek, Sammlung Spetz.” This was true at the time she was gathering information for the book. Before being dispersed at auction in January 1925, Spetz’s collection had been exhibited for several years at the Humanist Library of Sélestat. Herein lies a cautionary tale: a note at the Folger cited Kurth’s book to say the tapestry was “in Schlettstadt as of 1926,” conflating the publication date of the book with the book’s content.