Monday, September 20, 2004


Keys Treasures Traveling to Big Apple

By Mandy Bolen - Citizen Staff Writer

KEY WEST — The 1622 hurricanes off the coast of Cuba, which sent eight Spanish galleons to the ocean floor — and hundreds of sailors to their deaths — also may have served to preserve some of the last remnants of handmade silver and gold objects from that period of history.

Upon discovery of the treasure-laden wrecks of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita off the coast of Key West, salvagers rescued the artifacts from the salty depths of the turbulent ocean and painstakingly conserved the metal objects that came from Mexico, Peru and other then-unknown places in the New World. The objects were being brought back to Spain to help fund an ongoing war.

They never made it to Spain, but came to their final place of prestige in the galleries of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.

Despite more than 350 years of saltwater submersion, the gold still sparkled, and the careful hands of conservators cleared away centuries and revealed intricate etchings and ornamentation on items including silver buttons, golden plates and a poison cup.

Such rare antiquities caught the attention of exhibition experts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art who have developed an exhibition detailing "The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830" scheduled to open at the end of the month.

Officials from the prestigious New York museum asked Madeleine Burnside, executive director of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, if she would be willing to lend the artifacts to the New York exhibit.

Burnside was eager to participate in such an exhibit, but questioned whether the nation's most prestigious museum would want pieces from a shipwreck.

"Met officials told me, 'You don't understand,'" Burnside said. "You have some of the only examples that exist from this period and the only samples in existence in America."

In the coming weeks local museum officials will carefully pack up about seven artifacts and deliver them to New York for the exhibition, which will include a gold footed platter, a silver beaker, a silver condor plate and a gold poison cup.

The poison cup, with its intriguing ominous name, is one of the local museum's most popular objects, and visitors' eyes regularly grow wide as tour guides explain its use in the 17th century.

"The poison cup has a setting inside it for a bezoar stone," Burnside explained for the umpteenth time on Friday. "That particular type of stone neutralizes arsenic, which was the poison of choice at that time."

The artifacts from Key West will remain until December part of The Met's exhibit, which includes "more than 175 works of art and focuses on two uniquely rich and inherently Andean art forms that flourished during the colonial period, presenting the finest examples of Inca and colonial garments and tapestries, as well as ritual and domestic silverwork," The Met's Web site states.

Members and supporters of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum interested in seeing The Met exhibit with its local connections are encouraged to learn more about an upcoming three-day trip that includes a behind-the-scenes tour and reception at The Met, along with a cocktail reception aboard The Waterford yacht hosted by Mel Fisher Museum Board Member Guy Ross and John Evans.

The weekend also includes private receptions and tours of the American Museum of Natural History, lunch and a private tour of the New York Historical Society.

Participants are responsible for hotel and airfare arrangements, but museum officials have selected The Lucerne as the host hotel.

Anyone interested should contact Lisa Malcom or Adam Fiallos at (305) 294-2633 ext. 21.

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