When visiting the International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Fair in New York in October, I was struck by the imposing arms and armor on display in the booth of Peter Finer of London—enormous poleaxes, a beautifully ornamented Italian half suit of armor, a bronze cannon on its field carriage. It made me stop and wonder idly about how you might display such things at home, and then quickly brought to mind an article Antiques ran a year ago about the rise and fall of William Randolph Hearst as a collector. Among the most dramatic of Hearst’s holdings were the legions of suits of armor he displayed in the vast Gothic style armory he created in his New York apartment in the early twentieth century. Most were among the treasures sold after he was beset by financial woes in the 1930s.
Remarkably, just a day after my visit to the fair, the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced that it had acquired an extraordinary horse armor and accompanying man armor that had once belonged to Hearst, reuniting them with the many other objects once owned by the media tycoon that were already in the museum’s renowned Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch Galleries of Arms and Armor. The museum had been seeking a fine European horse armor for decades, and, indeed, this one and the accompanying man armor had been on Von Kienbusch’s radar screen even earlier, for the photographic archive he left the museum along with his collection and research library included pictures of the ensemble. When Pierre Terjanian, the museum’s J. J. Medvickis Associate Curator of Arms and Armor, made yet another attempt to contact its private European owner last year, he was chagrined to discover that the pair had been sold–to Finer, as it turned out. Happily, Pennsylvania philanthropist Nicholas Karabots—like Hearst, a publishing magnate and arms and armor aficionado—stepped in and generously funded the acquisition for the museum.
With its power to evoke the ferocity, pageantry, and romance of long ago, armor sparks the imaginations of many, from schoolchildren to magnates like Hearst and Karabots (cosmetics czar Ronald Lauder and former Treasury Secretary William Simon are also collectors).
Terjanian’s study of the horse armor reveals how scholarship can bring life to the story. The original owner was not known, but the motto “Ich habs im Sinn” (I have it in mind) inscribed on the principal plates offered a clue. Perusing nineteenth-century literature, Terjanian found suggestions that the motto was that of Ulrich, duke of Württemberg, which he then substantiated by locating a drawing for a stained-glass panel containing the duke’s coat of arms surmounted by a banderole inscribed “I.H.I.S.” Finally, in transcriptions Terjanian had made of payments made to armorers on behalf of the dukes of Württemberg, he was able to confirm that in 1507 an impressive sum was disbursed to the famous Nuremberg armorer Wilhelm von Worms the elder, whose mark is struck several times on the steel plates.
So it can now be established that the horse armor was commissioned for a duke famed for his military prowess in the year he was preparing to ride to the coronation of Maximilian I of Austria as Holy Roman Emperor (although the trip was subsequently aborted). Impetuous and controversial in his personal and public affairs, Ulrich was betrothed in 1498 to Sabina of Bavaria, Maximilian I’s six-year-old niece, and married her in 1511. But his roving eye led him to strike up a liaison with the wife of a courtier. Ulrich killed the courtier in 1515, and Sabina sought refuge with her brother, Wilhelm IV, duke of Bavaria, who subsequently invaded Ulrich’s lands and forced him to flee. In exile in Switzerland, Ulrich came under the influence of a follower of Martin Luther, and when he retook his dukedom he imposed the Reformation throughout. Clearly, his tempestuous life required a good suit of armor.
Images: Horse armor made for Ulrich, duke of Württemberg (1487-1550) by Wilhelm von Worms the elder (m. 1497; d. 1538), Nuremberg, 1507; and man armor made by Matthes Deutsch (active 1485-c. 1505), Landshut, c. 1505. Both are of steel with engraved decoration, the horse armor with gilding; weight of horse armor 90 pounds. Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Athena and Nicholas Karabots and the Karabots Foundation.