"Buddha in the Yurt"

, Star Tribune

Gift books for antique lovers

  • Article by: EVE M. KAHN
  • New York Times
  • December 4, 2012 - 3:08 PM

Books about antiques made for the ruling classes can stir up pleasant mixtures of craving and schadenfreude. The gift volumes recommended this year have intellectual heft and emotional wallop, explaining how artisans fabricated absurd luxuries that barely survived wars, natural disasters and owners' falls from power.

"The Queen's Diamonds"

(Royal Collection Publications/University of Chicago, $95)

Photographs of rulers wearing finery have long been popular collectibles; they would reassure subjects that their realm's wealth was somewhere safe. "The Queen's Diamonds" is heavily illustrated with images of pieces in use at formal events worldwide. The author, Hugh Roberts, a former director of the Royal Collection, explains how necklaces were shortened and brooches dismantled to suit different queens' tastes.

He also recounts a few family scandals. Queen Victoria battled with her German cousins over inherited jewelry, and her granddaughter-in-law, Queen Mary, had to buy back another batch of treasure from a cousin's mistress. The stones themselves represented doomed imperial power; they came from mines in India and Africa staffed by oppressed, rebellious colonists.

"Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens"

(Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $75)

The Saxons' relatives and enemies throughout 18th-century Europe patronized the Roentgen cabinetmaking workshop near Cologne. "Extravagant Inventions," the catalog for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum through Jan. 27, is full of custom pieces the customers barely had time to enjoy.

Abraham and David Roentgen, a father-son team, supervised up to 200 workers between the 1740s and 1790s. They inlaid Rococo desks and tables with scenes of colonnades, battlefields and frolicking peasants. They concealed mechanisms that powered pop-up shelves and music boxes, and they striped gilt on squared-off armchairs and clocks that foreshadowed the 19th-century Biedermeier fashion.

The book's 11 authors, including curators and conservators, trace pieces through centuries' worth of wanderings when the French and Russian aristocrats they were made for were killed by revolutionaries and assassins.

"Renaissance Intarsia: Masterpieces of Wood Inlay"

(Abbeville, $95)

"Renaissance Intarsia" focuses on work still in situ but suffering from a few bad repairs over the years. The text, by a team of 10 Italian historians, analyzes church and palace walls dating to the 1430s. Traveling carvers executed the wood mosaic cityscapes and pasture scenes, while adding details that flattered the clients. Scholars liked intarsia images of musical instruments and books, and popes and monks ordered portraits of saints. The wood grain lines, dotted with mother-of-pearl, were positioned to represent tiny gleaming swords, bird feathers and draped robes. The raw material, the authors explain evocatively, came from trees felled in winter, "and only during the waning phase of the moon."

"Greek and Roman Mosaics"

(Abbeville, $125)

Stone mosaic artists in ancient Greece and Rome imported polychrome chips from quarries scattered between Egypt and Asia. "Greek and Roman Mosaics," by the Italian historians Umberto Pappalardo and Rosaria Ciardiello, surveys 3,000-year-old pebble floors with geometric patterns, second-century scenes of chariots at Pompeii and sixth-century biblical tableaux for basilica domes.

The book's glossary is entertaining: Ancient installers called themselves tessellators, and a favorite squiggly motif was known as "opus vermiculatum" [or "worm-like work"]. Many of the mosaics have been removed from their original mortar beds; a petaled frame from a Tivoli villa's scene of doves around a birdbath has been cut apart and dispersed among collections in Germany, England and France.

"The Book of Kells"

(Thames & Hudson, $95)

The Book of Kells escaped looters numerous times, but it lost pages, covers and a gold slipcase along the way. Sometime around 800 A.D. Irish monks originally wrote the Gospel excerpts on vellum hides harvested from about 160 calves and painted the illustrations with indigo, lichen and gypsum pigments.

"The Book of Kells," by Dublin curator Bernard Meehan, is based on recent research into different scribes' handwriting and occasional typos. In a subchapter titled "Uncertainties" Meehan wonders why some fish in the illuminations have human heads and why some old men are portrayed pulling each other's beards.

"Buddha in the Yurt: Buddhist Art From Mongolia"

(Hirmer/University of Chicago, $179)

The meanings of Mongolian Buddhist artifacts have become harder to decode since the 1920s, when the country's Soviet-backed Communists started executing monks and seizing temples. An anonymous European private collector commissioned half a dozen scholars to produce a two-volume set about his holdings, "Buddha in the Yurt."

Deities and abbots in the paintings and statues can be identified by the styles of their robes, flaming headdresses and hand gestures, holding blood-filled skulls and wish-fulfilling jewels. Gems are missing from metalwork in the collection, and secret compartments in shrines have been emptied. But inside talisman boxes hidden photographs have turned up of Mongolia's last Buddhist leaders, dressed in fine silks and furs.

"Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections From the American Museum of Natural History Library"

(Sterling, $50)

Europeans' desire for overseas gems had surged as far back as the 16th century, when explorers brought back word of treasures worth exploiting. Royals publicized the discoveries by financing lavish scientific encyclopedias. "Natural Histories," edited by the museum librarian Tom Baione, reproduces excerpts from early scholarship laced with travelogue and hype. Zoologists in the 1500s carved woodblocks of sea monkeys based purely on legend. Jewelers in the 1670s described thrones in India that really were studded with diamonds. The book comes with a portfolio of 40 loose prints, so gift recipients can create their own dreamscapes of mermaids, butterflies, volcanoes and seven-headed hydras.

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