The Crown of the Andes weighs-in with 5.3 pounds of pure 20-carat gold and is decked with 1,500 carats of encrusted emeralds. Add to this the lore and craftsmanship of Spanish baroque in the New World and you have a priceless masterpiece.

Having survived centuries of conquest and considered one of the most sacred patrimonial objects elaborated during the Spanish viceroyalty of Nueva Granada (now Colombia), the Crown of the Andes was recently purchased by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for $2.5 million USD, according to a Bloomberg News report.

The museum remains tight-lipped over the final price paid.

But it wasn’t the Colombian government that sealed with the deal with the prestigious New York institution, but rather the daughter of antiquities collector Oscar Heyman (1888-1970), Alice Heyman, who after three decades in her possession, decided it was time to put the relic up for sale.

The story of the headpiece covers centuries of terrain, from its birthplace in Popayán to its new Fifth Avenue home. Spaniards arriving in South America in the 16th century encountered a rich and complex indigenous tradition of gold working that had developed over the course of millennia.

This crown was made to adorn a sacred image of the Virgin Mary venerated in the Cathedral of Popayán. A symbol of the Virgin’s divine grace, the crown is encircled by golden vinework set with Muzo emerald clusters in the shape of flowers, a reference to her purity.

The diadem is topped by imperial arches and a cross-bearing orb that symbolizes Christ’s dominion over the world. The crown came to represent the most distinctive artistic achievements of a region whose wealth derived from precious metals and gemstones.

It was constructed in two sections over six years by 24 goldsmiths using indigenous and Spanish smelting techniques. Finished in 1599, the crown was coveted by British pirates who stole it in 1650 only to lose it three days later during a street fight.

In 1812, Libertador Simón Bolívar got his hands on the crown and returned it to its ancestral home, Popayán. To keep the crown safe from marauders and revolutionaries, the notables of Popayán formed the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception.

The crown was shared among six of the most elite members of the Confraternity only to be reunited once a year for religious ceremonies.

The Crown of the Andes survived the conquest, while many other gold objects were melted down to fill galleons moored in the bay of Cartagena and destined for the Spanish realm. Many others ended up at the bottom of the oceans, as ship wreck treasure.

Protected by the Confraternity for three centuries, Pope Pius X in 1914 authorized the sale of the crown to fund a hospital, orphanage and home for the elderly. Russian Tsar Nicholas II showed interest in acquiring it for the Hermitage in St.Petersburg, but starving Bolsheviks and a firing squad stumped his ambition.

In the years between the two World Wars, the Crown made few appearances. In 1936, Chicago wholesale jeweller and diamond exporter Warren J. Piper put together a syndicate of investors and acquired the crown from the secretive Confraternity for $125,000.

Piper, not unlike the conquistadors, wanted to melt down the object and sell-off the individual emeralds, all 443, including the largest, the 24-carat Atahualpa Emerald. According to historians, the Atahualpa taken from Inca emperor Atahualpa when he was captured by Francisco Pizarro in 1532.

In 1963, the Crown of the Andes faced the auctioneer’s gavel at Sotheby’s in London. In 85 seconds of bidding, it was sold for £55,000 to the Asscher Diamond Company of Amsterdam, which was acting on behalf of jeweller Oscar Heyman.

The Crown was placed in a vault at Citibank. When Oscar died in 1970 his daughter, Alice, became the rightful owner.

The crown was put up for auction at Christie’s in 1995 and expectations on the fetching price were running high. But with a $3 million reserve on the piece, the Crown didn’t move — at least not until December of last year, when Thomas Campbell, director of the MET announced the acquisition.

“Created through the virtuosity of the Spanish colonial artists, the crown serves as a vivid expression of the cultural values and aspirations of the community within which it was made and used,” remaked Campbell as the crown” was placed in its landmark home.

A five century journey from the high Andes to Museum Mile ends at Gallery 357. Even though the Colombian government has made the repatriation of the crown a patrimonial priority, the jewel isn’t going anywhere soon, because as a New Yorker would claim: “It’s a steal.”

  • Anne Burton

    So the secret confraternity of Popayan sold it in 1936 for $125,000. Were there no laws about patrimony being sold and taken out of the country? It isn’t that long ago. And what did they do, this secret confraternity, with the proceeds? Presumably this has been documented and it would be interesting to read it all. How very sad for Colombia to have lost this priceless piece of early Colonial history.