|Turning Over an Old Leaf
Rare platinum coating discovered in the historic Breakers mansion
Summary: The Preservation Society of Newport County in Rhode Island has discovered rare platinum leaf decorating wall surfaces and ceiling panels at the historic Breakers mansion, a 70-room, 138,000-square-foot Italian Renaissance-style palazzo completed in Newport in 1895 by the prominent Vanderbilt family. Using non-invasive, state-of-the-art conservation techniques, the Preservation Society worked with the Delaware-based Winterthur Museum to uncover why the 100-year-old, silver-colored surfaces—thought to be decorated with silver, aluminum, or tin leaf—hadn’t tarnished in more than a century. Their analysis confirmed that the leaf’s silver appearance belied its true identity: platinum.
The five-story Breakers mansion, perched on a 13-acre site overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, is thought to best represent America’s Gilded Age of architecture. The Breakers was built as the Newport summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and was designed by none other than Richard Morris Hunt. Within the Breakers’ elegant morning room are eight gleaming, distinctive leaf panels accenting all four corners of the room and overlapping onto subsidiary ceiling panels. The eight wall panels are each coated with one of the muses of Classical mythology.
Turning over a new leaf
Last summer, Jeff Moore, chief conservator for The Preservation Society
of Newport County, became curious about the leaf panels at the
Breakers. “Silver-colored metals usually tarnish and degrade,” says
Moore. “I often wondered about this particular leaf and suspected
it was not silver. I expected to discover it was aluminum. In an
architectural context, designers often use tin or aluminum leaf
and, for example, put a yellow varnish on top to make it look gold.
To find platinum up there in thin leaf form was really interesting.
Even in the Modern era you would be hard-pressed to find a platinum
surface of any kind in favor of more inexpensive aluminum, copper,
or tin. Platinum is even more expensive than gold.”
Moore explains that platinum leaf in 19th-century architecture had
to have been rare due to its expense and the difficulty to find it,
pointing out that there is almost no documentation of its use in
architecture during the Gilded Age. He cites only one research find:
the Euclid Avenue Opera House in Cleveland, an opulent 19th century
structure that used both gold and platinum leaf. “Otherwise,
restorers, architects, and conservators didn’t know about it.”
Platinum was mined in the 17th century by the Spanish Conquistadors, Moore states. “And they actually threw it away because they were looking for gold and silver and didn’t realize platinum had value. It was only available in Columbia until 1820, and after that it was mined in Russia and achieved a value very quickly. When the Breakers was built, aluminum leaf was more mainstream. But I think for somebody for whom money was no object, such as the Vanderbilt’s, platinum might have been used more often than we know.”
Platinum is known for its durability and resistance to tarnishing,
says Moore. “It’s an inert, noble metal, like gold, so
it is resistant to everything that you can throw at it. Its natural
state is not to oxidize and it is less malleable than gold.” Its
high melting point (lowered by mixing with arsenic) makes platinum
working very dangerous, and only undertaken by crafters such as
Fabergé in producing Easter eggs for the Russian czars. Today, it
is most widely used, in microscopic layers, in car catalytic converters
because it burns off emissions at very high temperatures.
The ray gun leaves no doubt
Moore adds that unless a silver-colored surface is analyzed, the
assumption will likely be that it is not composed of platinum.
Curious about the Breakers’ Morning Room leaf, Moore conducted
a small analysis a few years ago. “I analyzed some pieces
of the ceiling panels. It revealed that we had some platinum.”
next step, Moore explains, was to analyze if the leaf gilding the
wall surface was consistent with the ceiling panels. This past
summer, Moore collaborated with the Winterthur Museum assistant
scientist Catherine Matsen and Natasha Loblo, a Winterthur Conservation
Program fellow and preservation intern. Loblo aimed a handheld
fluorescent X-ray machine to non-destructively test the walls,
and, together, they discovered platinum leaf in the eight wall
panels. “The device had a Star
Wars name and looked like a blue plastic ray gun,” jokes
Moore. “Natasha hooked it up to a laptop, and it told us
the metals and inorganics of the leaf at which it was pointed.
The very discovery of platinum leaf gilding the surface expanse
was pretty amazing.”
There must be more platinum
Moore enthuses that the analysis was fun and paid off, adding that he believes there is more platinum leaf to be found in the Breakers mansion and perhaps in other opulent structures from the Gilded Era. “As far as the documentation of platinum leaf from the past, I have very little. We just don’t know exactly where to find platinum leaf, but surely it is out there.”