Friday from the Walters Vault: The Fake that Wasn't

Henry Walters
Henry Walters

In 1903 collector Henry Walters purchased the Vierge Ouvrante or Opening Madonna—an ivory statuette whose front half is hinged and can open(

Closed, the seated Madonna with Christ on her lap is visible, and when opened scenes from the Passion of Christ are displayed.

J.P. Morgan wanted it, but Henry Walters got it, and it was expensive.

In the 1980s  the Vierge Ouvrante was taken off view, and it stayed in storage  for almost 15 years.


Because this once “unique” piece had three near twins in France, and they had all been condemned as fakes because of clear mistakes in their iconography.

Closed case?  Not so.  Science came to the rescue!

J.P. Morgan
J.P. Morgan

In 1998, the Walters had the Opening Madonna carbon-14 dated for an exhibition. The test results showed that it dated to around the year 1200, confirming it was genuine.

So, why were there three similar reproductions of the Walters’ Opening Madonna?

During the French Revolution, the Walters Vierge Ouvrante was turned into a children’s toy fit with four small wheels and a pull cord.

Once the French got their religion back, it was sent to Paris to be fixed, by artisans who were very good at repairing works of ivory in the medieval style. They were so expert, in fact, that they decided to make three faked copies. Each was good, but not perfect, and each was sold to a major French collector.

Three collectors were taken, but Henry Walters got it right! And beat out J.P. Morgan.