This is one of the Walters’ most precious masterpieces. Carved from a single piece of agate, it is translucent, and light striking the inside causes it to glow in warm, honey-colored tones.
For nearly a millennium, this spectacular example of gem carving lived a quiet life of splendid isolation, in the Byzantine Imperial Palace in Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
But in 1204, this all changed.
French Crusaders sacked the city and took the vase back to France. And there, over the next 400 years, it passed from one famous collection to another: from Louis I, Duke of Anjou; to his brother, Charles V, King of France; then to the treasury of Notre-Dame Cathedral, and finally the palace of King Francis I, just outside Paris.
Around 1590, the vase was stolen from the king’s palace, and apparently lost; but about 30 years later, it resurfaced in a Parisian “flee market,” where it was purchased by the great Flemish painter, diplomat, and art collector, Peter Paul Rubens.
But soon, Rubens fell on hard times and had to sell it, and its buyer then offered it to Shah Jahan, the Grand Mogul of India.
Dangerous encounters continued.
On its way to India, the Rubens Vase was “lost” in a famous shipwreck off the coast of Australia. But somehow, miraculously, the vase was recovered, and next emerged, around 1825, in the collection of the eccentric millionaire William Beckford.
Beckford eventually gave the vase to a nephew, who seemed to have forgotten its illustrious pedigree. It moved among various relatives until 1925, when Henry Walters bought it for just $4000.