An Accidental Treasure

In 1830, a French farmer accidentally stumbled upon the Berthouville Treasure—a collection of gilt-silver statuettes and vessels—when plowing fields in rural Normandy.  Originally dedicated to Mercury, the Gallo-Roman god, this treasure was transferred from the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to a conservation studio at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, California (USA), where it is currently on loan.  For four years, conservators in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Antiquities Conservation Department studied, documented and cleaned the 90 objects that make up this cache.  The project culminates with an exhibition currently on show at the Getty Villa, Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, marking its first debut outside Paris.

The Treasure is juxtaposed alongside other objects from the Cabinet’s collection, including coins, jewelry, marbles and bronzes.  According to the Getty press release, these pieces are associated with Roman luxury—revealing craftsmanship and providing social class information.  The exhibition concludes with four large silver missoria (plates), Late Antiquity objects, that also belong to the Cabinet.

The exhibition displays pieces that make up the Berthouville Treasure, including pictures, bowls, silver statuettes and other fragments, range from the first to the third centuries AD.  Although these pieces are mixed in terms of quality, their historical value is worth noting.  The Art Newspaper suggests this reflects the object’s donors, from wealthy individuals to slaves.  Furthermore, Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at The Getty, explains this hoard belonged to a temple, rather than part of private domestic burials.  He notes another unusual aspect of this hoard: the weight measurements are inscribed on individual parts, such as a handle or base, instead of an object’s overall weight.

The Berthouville Treasure project has been worthwhile: “[It] has revealed much of the original gilding, additional inscriptions, and valuable evidence for ancient production techniques as well as nineteenth-century methods of restoration,” The Getty notes.  But it also provided a cultural opportunity.  Mathilde Avisseau-Broustet, a Cabinet des Médailles curator, offers in an Art Daily article: “Not only will the conservation project help preserve these national treasures, but the findings will also advance art historical research and promote collaborative scholarship between art historians, museum curators, conservators, and scientists.”  And thus, the aim of the show appears fruitful: allowing visitors to appreciate new understandings of religion, culture, technology and ancient art found through this multi-year project.

Revisiting the past in the present is important.  The Berthouville Treasure conservation project and exhibition fulfills an important role in the twenty-first century, to which Mr. Lapatin states: “I would like people to become more familiar with these less well-known, but important, types of art that ancient writers spent so much time focusing on.”  And the conversation does indeed continue.  After its presentation in Los Angeles, the Berthouville Treasure will travel to San Francisco, Kansas City, Boston and Houston.

Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, is on show at the Getty Villa until 17 August 2015.