February 7, 1845 — Unique, priceless and irreplaceable, the Portland Vase, thought to date back to the first century BC, was shattered into more than 80 pieces on this day. A drunken visitor to the British Museum threw a sculpted stone exhibit at the glass cabinet containing the treasured artefact.
The glass Roman vase, 24.5cm high, was discovered in a funerary monument in Rome in the 16th century. After belonging to several different owners it was acquired in 1784 by the Duchess of Portland, a noted collector of antiquities.
In 1810 the 4th Duke of Portland loaned the vase to the British Museum in London for permanent exhibition, where it was seemingly safe forever.
But neither the duke nor the museum had anticipated what would happen when William Lloyd paid a visit on this day. Apparently he had been drinking for several days and was well intoxicated when he hurled a sculpture at the glass case containing the Portland Vase.
Lloyd, who said he was a student at Trinity College, Dublin, was arrested and later appeared in court charged with causing wilful damage. But his lawyers argued that the law under which he was being prosecuted applied only to the destruction of objects worth no more than five pounds.
As a result he was convicted only of destroying the glass case and was fined three pounds.
Investigations by the British Museum led, however, to a twist in the story. It was learned that although the vandal had been living in London under the name of William Lloyd, his real name was William Mulcahy. And although, as he claimed, he was a student, he had gone missing some time before from Trinity College.
Fortunately for him, the Duke of Portland decided not to bring a civil action for damages because he did not want Mulcahy’s impoverished family to suffer for “an act of folly or madness which they could not control”.
The British Museum bought the vase outright in 1945. It had been reconstructed in 1845 after the Mulcahy vandalism, but the work was only partly successful.
Another attempt was made in 1948 and a final restoration, using modern techniques, in 1988. The vase, back on display, now shows little sign of the original damage.
Published: January 2, 2017