Unlocking a Fifteenth-Century Flemish Casket

This casket hasn’t been opened since Henry Walters first acquired it.

A fifteenth-century Flemish casket with scenes from romances was recently brought to the conservation lab to be evaluated for a possible loan to another museum. It is a rare example of painted and gilded locking caskets with secular imagery. Purchased from the Parisian bookbinder and antiques dealer Leon Gruel by Henry Walters, only a handful of similar examples are known.

This casket is made of wood covered with leather that has been cut to create images and designs.  Iron straps surround the exterior, and there is a large lock on the front, suggesting the casket was intended to hold objects of great value.  When it arrived in the lab, the casket was locked.  There is no key and no record of it ever being opened at the museum.

Detail of heraldic devices on the back of the lid, showing traces of gilding and pigments.

Looking closely at the surfaces, conservators noted traces of gilding, as well as blue, red, and white pigments, indicating that the dark leather was originally gilded and details of the designs were brightly colored.

As the casket was turned around to examine all sides, conservators noticed the faint noise of something moving inside.  What was inside the casket?  Was the interior in good condition?  Was there any danger of damage if the casket was transported many hundreds of miles?

How to unlock a casket using x-rays

To answer these questions, the casket was x-rayed from the top and side to see what might be inside.  In the x-rays, nothing was visible inside.  However, anything lighter and less dense than the wood of the casket—such as paper, fabric, or other organic materials—would not be recorded in the image.

By studying the x-rays carefully, conservators realized it would be possible to open the lock even without the key.  A trick catch opens the cover of the key hole by depressing a tab at the bottom edge of the lock. The lock itself is a single lever on a tension spring connected to a double bolt through the two latches.  The lock can be opened by a simple “L”-shaped pick turned clockwise.  The two latches then open one after the other.


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Contents Revealed

The first surprise that conservators discovered was that that there was additional text on the front of the lid hidden under the latches.  For the first time at the Walters Art Museum, the entire inscription could be read: “AVRDT HVEVENEER @ DE PLOEIER.”

The curator, Joaneath Spicer, reads the inscription as the names of two families, most likely joined by marriage and  represented by the now-illegible coats of arms on the casket.

Detail of the front of the lid with the latches raised, showing the full line of text.

Inside the casket, conservators found another surprise: a handwritten note in French describing how to open the lock.  The casket was purchased by Henry Walters from a French dealer, and it is possible that these instructions were provided so that the new owner could open it—but somehow they were locked inside, where they couldn’t be read.

The directions for opening the casket, found locked inside. Written in French, the directions can be translated as: “To open the latch that covers the keyhole, press the tab that projects from the casket and lift the latch at the same time. Insert the key, turn it to the right until the closures open one after the other.”

The note was removed and placed in the file for this object, where it can be consulted in the future.  The interior of the casket is in good condition, though at some point the original red, yellow, and blue paper lining was covered with plain laid paper, possibly taken from old books or manuscripts.

The interior of the casket, lined with old paper possibly recycled from books or manuscripts.

Conservators have reattached some small sections of fragile 600-year-old leather that have split and pulled away from the wood.  The casket is now ready for its journey, but for the time being, it is back on view just outside the Great Room on level 3A of the Center Street building. 

2 thoughts on “Unlocking a Fifteenth-Century Flemish Casket”

  1. Hi there! Not sure how to get in touch with the author of a previous post on the James Cox clock. I am a horological conservator specializing in such pieces and thought I might be of some help regarding answering questions about the mechanism etc. Please feel free to get in touch with me if I can be of assistance.

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