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The Lost Rings

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The 1920 tax records for the city of Antwerp might not seem like the most exciting place to begin a story about a priceless work of art that's been missing for nearly a century. [onscreen] The Legend of The Lost Rings With Historian Eli Hunt But history is a science of details. Sometimes you don’t have much to go on, and even the tiniest fact can be a crucial piece of the puzzle. Sometimes you think you can see the whole picture, and then one little detail changes everything. In this case, the details are a ceremony in 1920 that didn’t happen and a statue made in Antwerp that never existed. I’m Eli Hunt, and this is the legend of the Lost Rings. Antwerp, in 1920, was a city in repair. Like much of Belgium, it saw heavy fighting during the Great War, but things were starting to rebound. The war was over, trade was returning to the city’s ports, and athletes from around the world were about to converge on Antwerp for the games of the seventh modern Olympiad. It was at the Antwerp games that the Olympic logo of five interlocked rings was scheduled to debut. The logo was designed in 1913 and approved in 1914, but because of the war, there were no games until Antwerp. And in fact, the logo was the very reason I found myself, eighty-five years later, in the city’s tax archives. Several years earlier, I’d come across an intriguing article in an old copy of the Gazet van Antwerpen, a daily Belgian newspaper. A small feature story in the February 24, 1920 edition announced that a group of donors planned to present IOC President Pierre de Coubertin with a metal sculpture replica of his logo at the games. Curious to see a photograph of the sculpture, I searched dozens of news archives for a follow-up story. But I couldn’t find a single reference in that paper, or any other periodical, that such an event ever took place. I got curious, and before long I was in Antwerp looking for answers. What I found were more questions. Tax records for a prominent artist named Hendrik van Waalen indicate that he was contracted to create five interlocking rings, and that he purchased the necessary materials. It even seems that he was paid 406,500 francs for his work. However, there’s no further information about who his clients were, and there’s no evidence that the work was ever delivered, or even completed. In fact, the work order itself has the word “perdu” written across it, -- [onscreen] perdu -- which is French for “lost.” What could this mean? Did he lose the job? If so, why was he paid? And if not, what became of the five metal rings? I had to know more. I started asking around among dealers in sculpture and metalwork. Hendrik van Waalen was well-known in Belgium at the time for his detailed work, and while obscure today, his name is still respected among collectors of fine craftsmanship. In fact, the sculpture is perhaps his most enduring legacy, even though I could not find a single person who had seen it. And more than one dealer I spoke to referred to the sculpture as the Lost Rings. One art historian at a New York auction house told me the story as it’s been passed down through the trade. According to the legend, van Waalen was contracted by an anonymous client to create the sculpture. It was never intended for presentation to de Coubertin. But as excitement for the games mounted in the city, a writer for the Gazet saw van Waalen’s work-in-progress and asked him about it. Van Waalen, reluctant to talk about the rings, asked his client, and the client instructed him to give the writer the false story that I had stumbled on decades later. Shortly thereafter, van Waalen declared the sculpture officially “lost,” and the supposed presentation was forgotten. About the sculpture itself, this much is known - it was composed of five interlocking rings, cast in metal. Supposedly they were not welded together, but rather, they could be detached one from another and put back together easily. It is also understood that they were engraved with some kind of message, though no one is clear on what that message might have been. It’s speculated that van Waalen did in fact complete the rings, and that they were delivered to the client, whoever he or she was. It’s also believed that they may still exist in some form or another, either separately or together, in private collections. One dealer even told me of a Danish man who came to his office claiming to have information about the whereabouts of a work of craftsmanship that he called the “Sixth Ring.” It was soon clear that the man was referring to Hendrik van Waalen’s interlocking rings, but the fact that the man didn’t know the piece’s proper name or the number of rings in the sculpture was enough to convince the dealer that his story was fiction, and that whatever piece he might have seen, it most certainly was not The Lost Rings. But I’m not so sure. Perhaps the logo and its metal counterpart are hiding a secret – a secret that the Danish collector understood. Who was Hendrik van Waalen’s client? Why would they instruct him to lie to a journalist? How was the sculpture “lost?" And why the discrepancy in its name? Was there actually a sixth ring designed as part of the commission? I’ve asked all the dealers I’ve spoken to what they would do if they found the rings. All of them have said they could sell them instantly, and from their tone, I presume they would bring a high price. I’ve asked who would buy the rings. Again the answer has been the same. All they will tell me is, “collectors.” We may never know if Hendrik van Waalen’s mysterious lost work ever really existed. But if it did, it is certain that even as I speak now, those “collectors” are doing everything they can to find it. And perhaps only when they succeed will we learn the truth about the lost rings and the secrets they were designed to keep. [onscreen]

Video Details

Duration: 7 minutes and 15 seconds
Country: UK
Language: English
Producer: Eli Hunt
Director: Eli Hunt
Views: 1,421
Posted by: ehunt on Feb 27, 2008

The 1920 tax records for the city of Antwerp might not seem like the most exciting place to begin a story about a priceless work of art, but history is a science of details.

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