Intent to Deceive?
When Henry Francis du Pont purchased a Pennsylvania painted chest inscribed "Sibila Himmelbergerin" in January 1926, he believed that it had been made in 1792, the date on the lid. Considered to be one of the best examples of its kind at that time, the chest was featured in an article by Esther Stevens Fraser in The Magazine Antiques (September 1926). On display for many years in the Fraktur Room at Winterthur, its authenticity was called into question when it was considered for inclusion in an exhibition and publication in the 1970s. In 1997 it was closely examined again and more scientific analysis was completed in preparation for Winterthur’s first exhibition on fakes and forgeries.
Nothing is known about the chest inscribed with the name Sibila Himmelbergerin before it was purchased from an unknown source in Reading, Pennsylvania, by dealer C.M. Heffner, who sold it to Henry Francis du Pont in January 1926.
Two other chests with related decoration are known. One is inscribed "Valentin Himmelberger" and the other "Susana Himmelbergerin 1793." The suffix "-in" or "-en" is used for objects belonging to a woman. Genealogical research has identified a Himmelberger family living in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in the 1790s. Sibila (1771−1859) had four brothers and two sisters, including Valentine (1768−1853) and Susana (1775−1868).
Look closely at the Himmelbergerin chest and the genuine Kernen chest displayed beside it and compare the style of painting. The brushstrokes on the carnations on the Himmelbergerin chest are short and thick, giving the appearance of individual petals on the flowers. The flowers on the Kernen chest have been painted with long, smooth brushstrokes and appear flat in comparison. Notice the difference in wear on the two chests. The paint on the lid of the Kernen chest is badly abraded while the top of the Himmelbergerin chest shows little wear.
A close study of the construction of the Himmelbergerin chest identified techniques that are inconsistent with the date of 1792. Far more nails were used than would have been expected, and X-rays showed them to be modern wire nails reworked to look like 18th-century wrought nails. The recesses for drawer hardware were drilled rather than gouged, as would have been the case for the 18th century.
Berks County, Pa.; probably late 19th century
Pine, maple, walnut
Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1957.1387
Pennsylvania; ca. 1788
Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1959.2804
Experts look at a variety of clues to establish authenticity, including the technique used to create the painted decoration. Compare the style of painting on these two chests. The brushstrokes on the carnations on the Himmelbergerin chest are short and thick and delineate individual petals. The flowers on the Kernen chest have been painted with long, smooth brushstrokes that make the flowers and leaves look much flatter.
Notice also the difference in wear on the tops of the two chests. The lid of the Kernen chest is badly worn while the top of the Himmelbergerin chest shows little wear.
XRF, FTIR, and SEM-EDS were used to characterize the pigments in the decoration of the Himmelbergerin chest and compare them to those of the Kernen chest. Both are decorated with pigments that are consistent with an 18th-century date: lead white, vermilion, copper-based green, and Prussian blue. The green color on the Himmelbergerin chest, however, was found to have a higher-than-normal concentration of salts of long-chain fatty acids, suggesting that it might date to the late 19th century, when metal stearate "soaps" began to be added to commercially prepared paint.
Analysis of Paint Composition on the Chests
Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) measures and displays a spectrum that gives "fingerprints" of different chemical compounds present in an object.
The FTIR spectrum of the green pigment (left) from the Kernen chest shows that it contains copper resinate, a traditional pigment. The spectrum from the paint used on the leaves of the Himmelbergerin chest shows a high concentration of a material tentatively identified as copper stearate, a late 19th-century paint additive.
Spectra that compare the yellow paints (right) used on the chests show pigments that are commonly used on historic pieces; no modern pigments (late 19th century onward) are present. The FTIR test could not, in this case, conclusively pinpoint a date for the yellow paints.
Details of Nails
This wrought nail (formed by beating with a hammer) was made in the 1700s and was taken from the Kernen chest.
This wire nail is a typical modern nail formed by being drawn from metal wire. The type has been available from the 1870s onward. The shank is round with striations along its length.
The top of the shank of the nail taken from the Himmelbergerin chest is round with striations along its length, characteristic of wire nails. The bottom has been hammered to look like a wrought nail. The presence of a modified wire nail would seem to indicate an intent to deceive.
Although the modification of the nails seems to indicate an attempt to disguise inconsistencies at the time of the sale to du Pont, the bulk of the evidence suggests that this chest was made in the late 19th century. One possible reason for the creation of such a reproduction might be to give each sibling a family heirloom. Although we cannot be sure, the lack of a market for such chests before the 1920s would imply that it is probably a legitimate reproduction that was later modified for sale with the intent to deceive.
Two other chests from the Himmelberger family survive that are similar in construction and decoration. Both were sold at auction, one in 1929 and the second, shown to the right, in 1931.