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Buried Treasures : Museums Are Cashing In on Ancient Riches With a Dizzying Array of Reproductions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The burnished gold bracelets and jewel-encrusted rings once worn by an ancient Nubian queen brought shivers to the people who run the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The prospect of cashing in on the traveling exhibit of riches unearthed from the tomb of Queen Amanishakheto--who ruled in the First Century BC in what is now Sudan--almost made them drool. But the two German museums that own the jewels said nein earlier this year to the Met’s money-making idea, dashing any dreams of minting and selling reproductions of the 200-piece collection.

“It’s hard to know if donors will come through with a promised gift or whether the government will continue to give you money,” says Lisa Koch, general-merchandise manager for the New York City museum. Selling reproductions, on the other hand, provides a reliable income, she says. “It’s not a panacea, but it’s a way to meet the budget shortfall.”

With so many other institutions in the same position, consumers can now choose from a dizzying array of items with roots in ancient Greece, the pre-Columbian Americas and czarist Russia, to name a few. The market for such jewelry has at least doubled in the last few years, say museum representatives and jewelry makers, who believe the trend taps into a desire for unusual, historical and ethnic designs.

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“We’re getting stampeded now with requests for reproductions from museums all over the world,” says Julie Levesque, vice president of Museum Reproductions, a Brookline, Mass., firm with licenses to reproduce jewelry from 50 museums worldwide. Business has “easily tripled” in the past few years, she says.

Interest has been so great that the Met--long in the business of selling via mail order everything from greeting cards to candlesticks--recently issued a separate catalogue of its jewelry reproductions. And costume jewelry giant Monet has joined up with the Smithsonian Institution to produce a line of baubles.

“Our target is a more educated, affluent consumer,” says Jennifer Jiunta, director of licensing for Monet, whose new Smithsonian Collection features replicas of Victorian earrings, Art Deco brooches and Renaissance cameos, among other items. "(We’ve found) that women are becoming more individualistic. They want something unique and different, and the cachet of a museum makes a woman feel good.”

Mary Cowell, product development manager for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, agrees. In the 1990s, “People don’t want name brands, or the biggest or the best,” she says. "(Museum jewelry) has symbolic meaning. It’s taking home a small part of history.”

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Most museums and firms offering reproductions enclose a detailed biography of the purchase item. Just browsing through the catalogues can amount to a crash course in decorative-arts history.

The Met, for example, notes that its Langobard drop earrings in 24-karat gold, decorated with enamel and set with cabochon aventurine stones in red and green ($85), date back to the Seventh Century, when migratory tribes invaded Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire rose to eminence.

The Wayfarer Trading Co. in Vail, Iowa, explains that its cartouche pendants encircling ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were inspired by those originally worn, 4,000 years ago, to protect the spirits of royalty.

And a tasteful gold-on-ivory card accompanying the Smithsonian Collection’s pendant re-creation of an antique Japanese Banko-Yaki rabbit sculpture says the animal is associated with the full moon in that culture’s mythology and is the symbol of the Yin, or female principle.

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The reproductions also offer unlimited possibilities for cocktail party repartee. “When someone comments on their earrings, they can say, ‘Oh, I got them from a museum, they’re from a painting,’ ” Cowell says of the tear-drop pearls copied from artwork by Peter Paul Rubens.

Laurel Beizer, who has been making museum jewelry reproductions for 14 years under the name DVB Inc. in New York, says her clients are “very devoted museum-goers, interested in history and art and the museum collection.”

While many famous designers re-interpret Byzantine Orthodox crosses or ancient Egyptian ankhs without regard for historical accuracy, Beizer and many of her museum counterparts do extensive research and pay excruciating attention to detail.

Among her bestsellers is the “poesy” ring. Inscribed with love sayings, the designs originated in First-Century Rome and were popular in England and France between the 15th and 17th Centuries.

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Indeed, the first thing one learns in this field is that every era steals from the past. “Reproductions have been going on since ancient times,” says Beizer, whose credentials include degrees in fine arts from the University of Michigan and in jewelry design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

“I have a 19th-Century reproduction of a medieval reproduction of a Roman reproduction of a Greek original. I think we’re constantly inspired by history.”

Detective work is part of the job. Beizer recalls trying to track down a ring designed by May Morris, a well-known figure in the British Arts and Crafts Movement, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. A little sleuthing led to a painting of Morris by her husband, portraitist William Morris, in the Delaware Art Museum. The ring turned up in the portrait.

Museum merchandisers, always eager to expand their catalogues, work closely with the business office and the curators, often browsing in the museum’s archives and storage sites for ideas.

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The Met’s Koch says such research sometimes pays off. Its version of the so-called Venus pearl-drop earrings painted by Rubens, priced at $48 for simulated pearls and 24-karat gold electroplate, have sold more than 100,000 pairs over the past five years, she explains.

Koch declined to discuss profits, but says the Met goes so far as to copyright items it believes have good sales potential. The Venus earrings, for instance, were quickly knocked off by other firms that changed a few details to avoid copyright infringement.

Some museums lean toward exact reproductions of pieces in their collections. Others pluck details out of a painting or sculpture for jewelers to reproduce. Still others take artistic liberty, creating pieces “inspired” by a historic item. The Met’s “cage-bead” necklace ($525) and earrings ($98) of blue howlite encased in twisted gold wire, for example, borrow from a hollow, cylindrical bead from ancient Greece.

It may take a year or more for a design to travel from the exhibit hall to the shopping mall. Some pieces are impossible to reproduce, because of either prohibitive cost or technical difficulties, such as the impossibility of making a mold.

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As a result, museums often bring in artisans to sketch and make models of pieces too fragile to mold from the original. Dorothea Arnold, the curator in charge of Egyptian art at the Met, says jewelers take photos and come back again and again to show the curators works in progress.

“We point out if the colors are matching, if it’s too far from the original, if it looks like traditional Egyptian style,” she says.

Arnold says that despite late-20th-Century technology, it’s impossible for contemporary jewelers to cut semiprecious stones into the tiny inlays favored by the ancient Egyptians.

“It’s such fine work we can’t do it. It’s all handwork, and now we use more technical tools. Also, the precision of the joints is hard to achieve.”

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But the museum’s Reproduction Studio, which has become a center for the study of advanced duplication techniques, comes pretty close to the originals. There, craftspeople make master molds and patinate and assemble jewelry by hand.

Arnold says she has no philosophical objection to copies, so long as quality comes first. “It has an educational effect and people are made aware of ancient times,” she says.

The Met has the second-largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo, but many of its offerings from other places and periods were produced with help from foreign museums. Its current catalogue features a large selection of historic Russian jewelry from the State Historical Museum in Moscow.

The grand dowager of American museums also has perhaps the longest tradition of reproducing items from its vast holdings. Jewelry was first copied in 1877 when trustees appointed Tiffany & Co. as the sole agent to manufacture and sell replicas of the finest pieces in the Cesnola collection of handcrafted gold jewelry from Cyprus.

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Tiffany’s facsimiles of 146 pieces of the Cypriot jewelry were displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1878, where they won a gold medal for excellence and were purchased for display by several European museums.

While other museums have long sold to a small but steady clientele, the arrival of mainstream fashion jewelers signals a boom for museum reproductions. Monet put a year of research and development into its new museum line of pieces, available at Nordstrom, from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, and it has paid off.

“We’ve had a wonderful response, which told me the business was exploding and growing,” says Jiunta, Monet’s director of licensing. “The thing is, you have to do it tastefully.”

Sources

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* The Smithsonian Jewelry Collection by Monet is available at Nordstrom stores citywide.

* Metropolitan Museum of Art, (800) 468-7386

* Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, (800) 225-5592

* Wayfarer Trading Co., (800) 432-1892

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