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The Metropolitan Museum of Art contains treasures from the times of Kievan Rus: how they got there and where you can see them


Alina Prikhodko

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection of medieval and Byzantine art is one of the most extensive in the world. It covers the art of the Mediterranean and Europe from the 4th century after Christ until the beginning of the Renaissance in the 16th century. The collection includes works of art from the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. The exhibition also includes decorations from the times of Kievan Rus, dating from the 11th-13th centuries.

The exhibits of this exhibition are part of the richest treasure found at the beginning of the twentieth century during excavations of settlements of Kievan Rus. For many years they were kept in private collections and museums, remaining inaccessible to public inspection.

Gold and silver jewelry was accidentally discovered in the old part of Kyiv. This happened on July 5, 1906 during the laying of a new network of water pipes by the Kyiv Waterworks Society at the St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery. The treasure has gone through a complex history from the moment of its discovery and theft to the state collections of Western museums.

Only in the late 1990s did it become possible to study objects from this treasure and archival documents belonging to J.P. Morgan in New York. This revealed many previously unknown details related to their history, including information about the sale and journey of the treasure to the West, as well as its composition.

Screenshot from the site

History of the treasure

According to information from open sources, the head of the search group, I. Bystrov, who stopped the theft of the treasure after its discovery in Kyiv, took the valuables. He claimed that he would hand them over to the police, but in fact he sold the treasure for a small sum to the antiques dealer M. Zolotnitsky.

Realizing that the gold and silver jewelry bought for next to nothing were quite ancient and rare, Zolotnitsky hoped to make a big profit from their sale. He sought to keep the treasure secret and was looking for profitable buyers. However, the news quickly spread among local collectors. Fearing that he would lose his treasures, on October 12, 1906, the man went abroad, taking the jewelry with him.

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The American banker, financier and collector John Pierpont Morgan became interested in the treasure. He possessed a huge collection of antiquities, including paintings, bronzes, enamels, bones, crystal and glass. Thanks to the surviving documents from Morgan's private archive, it was possible to establish that on April 30, 1907, he bought the Kiev treasure through the London antique firm Durlacher Brothers. At that time, he purchased it as a collection of Byzantine gold and silver jewelry for £5.

The British Museum in London, in turn interested in acquiring at least part of the treasure, made this request to its new owner. Morgan donated the silver and niello decorations of the treasure to the British Museum in May 1907. The rest of the items, mostly gold and cloisonne enamel, entered Morgan's private collection in New York, adding to his magnificent collection of enamels, the composition and quality of which no other museum could compete with.

After the death of J.P. Morgan in March 1913, most of his collection, worth $50 million, was sold. One part of it was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1917 by the son of a collector.
The belonging of the described kolta and ring to the Kyiv treasure of 1906 is confirmed by documents from the private archive of J.P. Morgana.

Screenshot from the site

Amazing collection

In the 11th-13th centuries, one of the most common decorations on the territory of Kievan Rus was a metal pendant known as a kolt. Colts were attached to the headdress and decorated in various ways: covered with enamel and filigree patterns. Several such artifacts are kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It is unknown what these decorations were called in those distant times. The current term began to be widely used at the end of the 19th century - researchers relied on information obtained through ethnographic research. Round-shaped objects were common, where artists depicted birds, saints, and even managed to create compositions on religious themes.

It is the birds that are depicted on several Kyiv jewelry in the museum’s collection. There are several dozen different stories in total. One of the most common symbols is the tree of life and its stages of development and parts: seeds, young shoots, mature plants.

The kolta presented here are made of gold; later examples began to be made from inexpensive metals - bronze and lead. There were also cheap jewelry in those days; they could be bought on the market and used as a talisman. Only after the Mongol-Tatar invasion did the kolts disappear from everyday life.

The collection includes a silver ring with partial gilding and blackening, also from the 11th-13th centuries, and chains, the so-called riazni. They were created from small medallions of cloisonné enamel. Chains could connect layers of dress, they could be worn as necklaces or bracelets, or used to hang temple pendants or koltas. Women in Kievan Rus wore temple pendants in pairs, hanging them from the face as part of an elaborate headdress.

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