The gold ewer

In 1989, Arthur Gilbert (1913 – 2001), who had already assembled an outstanding collection of British and European decorative arts, decided to acquire a very different object which would be unique in his collection: a 4,250-year-old Anatolian gold ewer.

Gold ewer vessel with punched decorative geometric detail to the body, delicate handle and spout.
Gold ewer, unknown maker, about 2500 – 2000 BC, Anatolia. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection

In 2018, the Gilbert Collection embarked on a major provenance research project which revealed that, unbeknownst to Arthur Gilbert, this gold ewer carried a problematic provenance: the dealer who sold him the ewer was secretly involved in the trade of illicit antiquities. The Gilbert Trust for the Arts, the guardian of the collection which is on long-term loan to the V&A, shared this research with the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Their experts established that the ewer had been illegally excavated and exported and that Arthur Gilbert had been deceived about its true provenance. In light of this revelation, the Gilbert Trust, together with the Turkish Ministry of Culture, decided that the most appropriate place for the ewer would be the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara. In October 2021, the Gilbert Trust donated the ewer to this museum, where it went on display next to objects of the same period which thereby provide crucial cultural and historical context.

The Gilbert Trust went on to commission a leading contemporary metalsmith to create an art piece which will respond to the ewer and its story. This original piece will go on display in the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Galleries in December 2021, serving to open up a wider conversation about the importance of proactive provenance research, collaboration and exchange.

The origins of the Gilbert Collection

The V&A is the longstanding home of the Gilbert Collection. Across four dedicated galleries, visitors can follow Arthur Gilbert's collecting journey – from delicate micromosaics and vibrant pietre dure, to precious items of gold and silver, dazzling snuff boxes and enamelled portrait miniatures.

Black and white photograph of Arthur Gilbert sat at a table looking at a silver presentation dish.
Portrait of Arthur Gilbert. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection

Arthur Gilbert's achievement as a collector is all the more remarkable considering his family background. He was the son of a furrier who had come to London as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. Together with his wife Rosalinde, a fashion designer, Arthur founded a successful fashion business that took London by storm. After the Second World War, the Gilberts decided to build a new life in the United States, where Arthur became a real estate developer just at the right moment to benefit from the property market boom in Los Angeles.

His passion for collecting was ignited quite by chance. As he later recalled: "I did not wake up one morning and say: Arthur you are going to become a collector". It all began on a chance visit to an antiques shop in Los Angeles, where he saw what, at first glance, appeared to be a painting. But, as he moved closer to the piece, he realised that this work was not created with a brush, but had instead been painstakingly assembled from thousands of tiny mosaic pieces. Stunned by this artistry, Arthur became fascinated with this particular artform, for which he coined the term 'micromosaic'. He would go on to purchase silver to decorate the family home. "After I'd acquired a number of pieces of both silver and mosaics, I decided that I'd begin collecting. I eventually became a maniacal collector".

Later in life, when Arthur was asked to describe his collecting habits, he said simply that he "liked beautiful things" and that "he liked history". With these twin passions in mind, it is therefore unsurprising that the Gilbert Collection not only contains dazzling pieces of incredible craftsmanship, but also many objects with a truly illustrious provenance. Arthur Gilbert was immensely proud, for instance, of the sumptuously decorated gold boxes which had what he described as the "grandest possible provenance": they had belonged to Frederick the Great of Prussia. In his collection, these precious historical objects sit next to pieces which had belonged to other major historical figures, from the Tsars of Russia to Emperor Napoleon I, as well as objects which once belonged to highly-esteemed collections.

The gold ewer

Arthur Gilbert's chosen field of collecting was British and European masterpieces, but as a very open-minded collector he occasionally became fascinated by objects from elsewhere. This was the case when he first laid eyes on the ancient gold ewer in 1989. From the first moment, Arthur Gilbert was immediately mesmerised by this stunning, beautifully decorated vessel. Although small in size, the weight of the gold meant it rested heavily in his hands, while its bright surface playfully reflected the light.

Gold ewer vessel lying on it's side showing the base with an ancient swastica symbol on it. Body is decorated with geometric detail.
Gold ewer (side view), unknown maker, about 2500 – 2000 BC, Anatolia. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection

His fascination continued to grow when he learned that this gold ewer was created by a Hattian goldsmith who lived 4,250 years ago in Anatolia, Turkey. This goldsmith worked the ewer from a sheet of gold, skilfully embossing it with complex patterns, and decorating its base with a swastika (an ancient symbol of the sun). Arthur Gilbert was informed that the ewer had been made to accompany a Hattian ruler into the afterlife, an evocative story that would only have added to the allure of this beautiful object.

What Arthur Gilbert did not know, and could not have known at the time, was that this antiquities dealer was not what he seemed. Arthur had never before acquired an archaeological object and, on the only occasion that he did, he was met by a dealer who was secretly involved in the trade of illicit antiquities. Without access to this information, Arthur Gilbert acquired the ewer and added it to his collection where it always occupied a unique place as the only object of its kind, sitting as it did among a vast of array of objects created thousands of years after the Hattian goldsmith had crafted this masterpiece.

Proactive provenance research

In 2018, the Gilbert Collection embarked on a major research project into the provenance of the collection. The aim of provenance research is to discover and explore who owned particular items in the past. Knowing whose hands these objects passed through enables us to tell fascinating stories not only about the objects themselves, but also about the different worlds they inhabited as they travelled through time. In the case of the Gilbert Collection, this research is particularly important because Arthur Gilbert started to build his collection at a time when provenance was seen as less important (and was less scrutinised) than it is today.

Like most collectors of his time, Arthur Gilbert acquired various pieces without asking in-depth questions about their provenance, which is why it is important to conduct this research today, not only to increase our knowledge, but also to ensure that the Gilbert Trust can act as an ethical steward of the collection.

In the case of the ewer, this research, which could draw upon far greater resources than were available in the 1980s, brought to light that it carried a problematic provenance. The Gilbert Trust for the Arts recognised that it was important to address this issue head-on and therefore shared this new information with the Turkish Ministry of Culture, resulting in an extraordinarily productive research collaboration. The experts from the Ministry established that Arthur Gilbert had been deceived about the ewer's provenance and that it had, in fact, been excavated and exported from the country illegally.

The return

The Gilbert Trust was established to share Arthur's collection with the world, which is why the Gilbert Collection is on display at the V&A and why highlights from the collection are also loaned to various museums around the globe – from Los Angeles, to Antwerp, Moscow, and China. With this in mind, together with the Turkish Ministry of Culture, the Gilbert Trust decided that the most appropriate place for the gold ewer would be the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara.

At the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, visitors will for the first time in decades be able to appreciate and study this incredibly important object, and to do so alongside other Hattian artefacts. In Turkey, the return of the ewer has been welcomed as the restitution of an important part of their cultural heritage. The Gilbert name is irrevocably interwoven with the history of this object, and a special label will inform visitors about the ewer's more recent provenance, the Gilbert Collection's research efforts, and the story of the Trust's successful collaboration with Turkey that resulted in the return of the ewer to the 'place of its birth'.

The conversation continues

In a museum, conversations are always sparked by the objects on display. The departure of this beautiful ewer naturally leaves a gap in the Gilbert Collection, where it occupied a truly unique place. The Gilbert Trust therefore decided that the ewer's presence should still be felt in the collection and commissioned contemporary metalsmith, Adi Toch, to create an art piece that responds to the ewer and its remarkable story.

Place to Place, funnel, by Adi Toch
Place to Place, funnel, by Adi Toch, 2021, England. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.1:1-2021. © Ros Atkinson

Ever since she first handled the ewer, Adi Toch has formed a deep artistic connection with the object, which has served as a source of inspiration for her own practice. Like Arthur Gilbert, Toch was immediately fascinated by the alluring colour of the gold, the impeccable craftsmanship, and the complex history it embodies. For her art piece, Toch used not only the same gold alloy of the ewer, but also employed many of the same techniques used by the Hattian goldsmith thousands of years ago. This resulted in a piece that thoughtfully prompts us to consider the movements of objects through time and how they continue to fascinate, inspire and connect us.

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Dr Jacques Schuhmacher, Provenance Curator, The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection

Background image: Place to Place, funnel, by Adi Toch, 2021, England. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.1:1-2021. © Adi Toch