The Paston Treasure

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shell cup from about 1660 © Norfolk Museums Service

At Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery there is an exhibition that I would urge anyone in the vicinity to visit before it closes on the 23rd of September.

Called Paston Treasure: Riches and Rarities of the Known World, it brings together rare works of art originally featured in an enigmatic painting which chronicles one of the greatest private art collections of seventeenth century England. Central is a large (1668 x 2475mm), oil painting, dating circa 1665 by an unknown Dutch artist. Entitled The Paston Treasure, the picture contains images of gold and silver, exotic objects, musical instruments, fruits and flowers, a lobster, a monkey and a parrot, in addition to portraits of a young girl and an African youth.

Apparently the items in the painting were just a small amount of the collection owned by the Paston family who were prominent locally for about 300 years. One member even married an illegitimate daughter of Charles II but by then the family fortunes were dwindling and on the death of the last Paston the vast and unusual treasures they had acquired began to split up.

This exhibition contains few items seen in the picture and they have been gathered from museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Chicago Institute of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Collection.

Whilst the family might be better known for their famed fourteenth and fifteenth century letters which tell us so much about life at the time, the painting is one of the very few sources we have of the sort of collections that were made by well-to do- people of that era.

Having taken a while to locate just five of the items, how many more are hidden away in  public and private collections around the world? And will we ever see them in an exhibition in the future?

To watch a brief video of the Paston Treasure narrated by Stephen Fry on YouTube, click here.

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