The Quick 10: How 10 Works of Art Were Discovered

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It was this month in 1820 that a peasant farming the fields stumbled across one of the greatest artistic finds in history: the Venus de Milo. Seriously, all I ever find when I'm digging in my yard are pieces of broken toys and copious amounts of cigarette butts. Maybe you'll be luckier than me... read how these 10 works of art were "discovered" and then go and do a little digging of your own. And if you find anything, you have to give me 10 percent for inspiring you. ...No? Well, I tried.

1. The Venus de Milo was discovered in 1820 by a Greek farmer digging in his field. He found a cavity in the ground with the Venus inside; it also contained three statues of Hermes and a marble fragment that didn't belong to any of them. There was some debate over whether the statue belonged to Turkey or France, but Venus ended up being presented to the King of France (Louis XVIII) and she's been in the Louvre ever since.

winged2. Another Louvre treasure, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (AKA Nike of Samothrace), was discovered in 1863. Charles Champoiseau, an archeologist, found her shattered into more than 300 pieces - not including her head and arms, which are still missing today. Almost a century later, a fingerless right hand was found along with one severed finger. Jean Charbonneaux, the curator of the Louvre said he had no doubt that it belonged to Nike, but would probably never have it attached, even if the corresponding arm was found. "A statue without a head and with only one arm looks rather awkward."
3. The Mona Lisa is thought to have been one of da Vinci's last works; he finished it not long before his 1519 death (side note: yesterday was da Vinci's birthday). Afterward, the King of France, who had invited da Vinci to work at a mansion near his castle, bought the painting and kept it in his personal collection until it was given to Louis XVI. Louis moved it to the Palace of Versailles until the Revolution was over, and after that it was sent to where it resides now - the Louvre. But it hasn't been there consistently - Napoleon had it placed in his bedroom; it was hidden away during the Franco-Prussian War and again during WWII, and it has been stolen several times.

sphinx4. The Great Sphinx. Legend has it that the Sphinx was rediscovered by Napoleon's troops in 1798. In fact, the story of the Sphinx's missing nose is sometimes attributed to a stray cannonball from his army, but older depictions show that the Sphinx's nose has been missing for a looooong time. The truth is, people have known about the Great Sphinx for quite some time before Napoleon - we have a written description of "the great colossus" from as early as 1546. It's probably safe to say, though, that Napoleon and his men brought newfound worldwide attention to the Sphinx.

5. The Venus of Willendorf, despite dating back to 24,000 BCE or so, was only discovered in 1908. Austrian archaeologist Josef Szombathy was excavating a paleolithic site near the city of Krems, Austria, when he stumbled upon the old gal. She was carved from a limestone that isn't native to the area, so lots of speculation as to how she got there has been flying around ever since. If you want to see her in person, the Venus of Willendorf is at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

disk6. Coyolxauqui bas-relief. In the '70s, some electrical workers did some accidental excavating while installing power lines in Mexico City. At 8.5 tons, this bas-relief disk of the Aztec moon goddess was quite the find. It's now housed in the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City.
7. The "discovery" of Still Life with Flowers by Van Gogh is like something you dream about. A retired couple in Milwaukee had a reproduction of this piece hanging on a wall in their living room... or so they thought. It turned out to be an original. Can you even imagine?! They sold it for $1.4 million in 1991.

8. The Code of Hammurabi was discovered in 1901 by Gustav Jequier, an Egyptologist and part of the excavation crew of Jacques de Morgan. It had been hidden since about the 12th century BC when it was stolen by the then-King of Elam, Shutruk-Nakhkhunte when he defeated the Mesopotamian Empire (we think).

laocoon9. Laocoön and His Sons was discovered in Rome in 1506 near the Golden House of Nero - it's thought that the statue may have belonged to the Emperor. The Pope at the time, Julius II, was an avid patron of the arts and immediately laid claim to the sculpture. The sculpture was missing its arms when it was discovered, so new, outstretched versions were made and attached. Then, in 1906, an archaeologist discovered a piece of a marble arm that, 44 years later, was determined to belong to the Laocoön. The funny thing is, the new arm proved that the position of his arms were bent, which is what Michelangelo had argued when the replacement arms were made in 1506. Take that, Raphael!!

constantine10. The Colossus of Constantine was discovered in Rome in 1487, but not the whole thing - poor Constantine looked like Dexter had his way with him. So far, the only pieces to surface are his head, the right arm with elbow, both kneecaps, the left shin, the left foot, and two right hands. Two right hands? Yep - it's hypothesized that at some point, the right hand was reworked so Constantine could hold a Christian symbol instead of a sceptre. Based on the measurements of the pieces that have been found, the Colossus was probably about 40 feet tall. Aren't those eyes haunting? Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist

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April 16, 2009 - 1:40pm
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