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Bidding for a crown.

An upcoming sale at Christie's auctioneers in New York is attracting the attention of gem dealers, Latin American art collectors, and historians of the colonial Catholic Church. Offered for sale - and on public view for the first time since 1964 - is the Crown of the Andes, a monumental headpiece made from four pounds of 18-22 carat gold and 450 emeralds in Popayan, Colombia, at the turn of the seventeenth century - and expected to fetch between US$3-5 million in the November auction.

Spared the 1590 plague that devastated South America's coastal communities, the city fathers of Popayan, near the famed Chivor and Muzo emerald mines, offered their thanks in the form of a crown adorning the head of the basilica's lifesize statue of Our Lady of the Assumption. According to legend, twenty-four goldsmiths and lapidaries worked six years to make the gold foliage-chased and gem-encrusted circlet headband and diadem. Four arches with seventeen pear-shaped emerald pendants, surmounted by a gold orb and cross, were attached in the eighteenth century, and over the years more emeralds have been added as private votives.

In need of money for essential repairs, and with the Vatican's special permission, the church tried to sell the crown to Czar Nicholas II in 1917, but the Russian Revolution intervened before the transaction was complete. Twenty years later it was sold to a group of North American investors, who exhibited it briefly in the United States before consigning the treasure to the bank vault where it has remained until now.

Recognizing the difficulty of selling one-of-a-kind objects in the relatively quiescent market of colonial Latin American art, Christie's has launched an energetic publicity campaign. Besides sending the crown on a presale tour around the world, it has taken to calling its largest gem, measuring about .6 inches by .6 inches, the "Atahualpa Emerald," repeating the unlikely claim that it was part of the Inca Atahualpa's ransom from Francisco Pizarro.

Christie's has also hinted that some potential buyers have express interest in distmantling the piece for the value of its gems. The auction house, by publicly counting down possibly the crown's last moments as an integral artwork, hopes thereby to dramatize its sale. But independent appraisers are skeptical of the emeralds' inherent quality, and one even speculates that, over the years, the original specimens have been replaced with those of lesser importance.

What cannot be disputed, however, is the historical significance of the crown. For three centuries adorning Our Lady of the Assumption in Popayan's basilica, it has survived the lootings of pirates, privateers, and revolutionaries, guarded always by a lay fraternity specifically dedicated to the crown's protection. One can only hope that the crown receives equal care from its new owners.
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Title Annotation:Christie's to auction Crown of the Andes
Author:Werner, Louis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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