57.1015 Mounted oyster shell (ca.1878)
Two Putti Discover a Pearl in Oyster
Emilé Froment-Meurice (France; 1837-1913)
Silver-copper and gold-silver alloy, gilt, oyster shell, natural pearl
Approx. 9” H x 6 ½” W
Collection of the Walters Art Museum
This mounted oyster shell was made in the late 19th century by the highly accomplished Parisian goldsmith firm Froment-Meurice. Museum records indicate that this object was purchased by George Lucas on behalf of William Walters in 1878. A newspaper article records that it sat on display in Walters' Baltimore town home parlor in 1898. Beyond that date little is known of the care and handling, or conservation history. The object appears whole and complete in a photograph in the curatorial file from the 1930s, however it was likely damaged before being placed in storage for several decades. Unfortunately, this store room was lined with rubber mats. Over time these mats generated hydrogen sulfide gas, which severely tarnished the silver objects housed within it.
This object is by far the most complicated treatment of my third-year internship! I spent considerable time investigating the historical context of the Froment-Meurice firm, and came across several references that oxidized silver, where silver was intentionally patinated to give it an antique appearance. This technique was employed by Froment-Meurice in the early 19th century, and possibly as late as 1881. Conservation scientist Glenn Gates and I conducted analytical research in an attempt to answer the puzzling question of the surface - was it "tarnish" or "patina"? This investigation informed my treatment decisions, where I decided not to polish the silver components, and only reduce the tarnish on the gold and gilt components.
This treatment has been as complicated and time-consuming as my research. Chemical reduction with acidified thiourea to reduce the tarnish was the most viable option for the delicate gold seaweed form. Re-assembly has proven surprisingly straightforward; using gentle persuasion to re-shape the bent seaweed components into alignment, the re-assembled object is actually very stable. To return the object safely to the Walters, as well as protect it in storage, the object will be partially assembled and a custom housing will be made to prevent re-tarnishing.