Crown of the Andes backstory
The Crown of the Immaculate Conception is a complex object. There is so much that one can discuss, from Catholic religious performances and dressing statues to Spanish colonialism and the long history of emerald and gold mining in Colombia. It is remarkable that it survives until today, given that many other crowns and metal objects that dressed Catholic religious statues have been melted down over time.
There is also an opportunity to talk about the broader life of the Crown: where it was made, where it moved, and why it is now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you look at the object entry for the Crown on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, you will notice the provenance information noted as this:
Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, Cathedral of Popayán (Colombia); Tomás Olano y Hurtado, Popayán [syndic of the confraternity, granted permission to sell the crown by Pius X in 1914]; his son, Manuel José Olano, Popayán, until 1936; Warren G. Piper, Chicago, until 1938; Oscar Heyman & Brothers, New York, until 1963; Sotheby & Co., London, November 21, 1963; sold to Asscher Diamond Company, Amsterdam, acting on behalf of Oscar Heyman (1888–1970), New York; his daughter, Alice Heyman, New York, 1973–2015; sold to MMA.
But what does that mean?
After the Crown was made, its caretakers were members of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception at the Cathedral of Popayán. In the early 20th century, Pope Pius X granted permission to the confraternity to sell the Crown to raise funds for the Cathedral, though this decision was not agreed upon nor considered desirable by all members of the broader church community. Still, it was sold, and by 1936 it was in private hands in the United States, then owned by Warren G. Piper in Chicago. Piper was a gem dealer who undoubtedly found the many emeralds on the Crown of considerable interest. He was the one who provided the nickname: the “Crown of the Andes,” and who built up its acclaim in the U.S. by having the Crown go on tour; he also rented it for events. It would be displayed at World’s Fairs and other public spaces, and was even displayed in the window of Macy’s Department Store in New York City and also at General Motors in Detroit. Besides Piper, the Crown would pass through several other hands before eventually being put up for auction in 1995 by Christie’s; it did not sell at that time (though the Colombian government did attempt to buy it back at this time).
Between 1973–2015 the Crown was with the Heyman family of New York, before it was sold to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had come to The Met’s conservation lab a couple of years earlier because of the Crown’s state: it was collapsing. There, it underwent extensive conservation efforts to repair damage. Technical studies at this time helped to date the different components of the Crown. Currently, it is on display in the American Art wing at The Met, surrounded by other paintings and silver and gold objects from South America during the period of Spanish control (what is called the viceregal era). Whether it should remain in the collection of The Met is debated, and there are calls, by some parties, for it to be restituted to Colombia, based on questions related to the legality of the initial sale.