A time to mourn, a time to sell: Freeman’s offers vast collection of mourning art

Listen 2:20

Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia now has on display what might be the largest collection of mourning jewelry — hundreds of pieces of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century memento mori, designed for grieving the dead.

An upcoming sale will feature the pieces that once made up the collection of the Museum of Mourning Art in Drexel Hill.

For 25 years, the museum was in the Arlington Cemetery, just outside of Philadelphia, in a customized wing of the administrative building constructed to resemble George Washington’s Mount Vernon mansion.

Its display of somber — sometimes creepy — Victorian objects to remember the dead attracted artists, scholars, the occasional goth punk, and, according to cemetery president Gary Buss, hospice patients.

Buss said the big draws were the black horse-drawn hearse carriage, a ring embedded with George Washington’s hair that was given to his pallbearers, and a cemetery gun — a huge rifle on a swiveling pivot with a trip wire, to deter midnight grave robbers.

That museum closed in 2015 when its patron, Anita Schorsch, died. Schorsch and her husband, Irvin, were major collectors of American antiques and regular clients at Freeman’s. They died a year apart: Irvin in 2014, Anita in 2015. The auction of their estate of Americana at Sotheby’s in 2016 was a major event, bringing in a record $10 million.

For many decades, Anita Schorsch collected mourning art and funeral souvenirs, publishing the book, “Mourning Becomes America: Mourning art in the new nation” (1976). The museum at Arlington Cemetery was her project, which died with her.

The 150 pieces, in 126 lots, now on display at Freeman’s include handmade pendants, rings, and pins bearing the initials of the deceased, often with an image of grieving by a tombstone painted on bone or ivory, sometimes with a skull or skeleton against a background of the deceased’s hair.

“That’s woven hair underneath,” said Lynda Cain, Freeman’s head of American furniture, folk and decorative arts, inspecting a small pendent with a skull and crossbones that would have been worn on a black ribbon. The piece dates to the late 17th century.

“It gives some people creeps now, but hair — you can cut a lock of hair, and it’s one of the longest-lasting parts of the body,” she said.

Cain pointed to shroud pins, which would have been used to clasp a burial shroud. The pins are decorative flowers made from wire and delicately woven with strands of the deceased’s hair.

“It’s an acknowledgment of death,” said Cain, particularly in England. “It was popular from 1660 on, after England has experienced a century of war, the execution of Charles I, the plague, and in 1666 a massive fire in London. Death was everywhere.”

Jewelry for grieving the dead was big business. A wealthy person might order hundreds of custom-made rings or mementos to give away. They had to be produced by hand, in large numbers and very quickly, in time for the funeral.

“We have jewelers involved, artists involved, hair braiders involved, enamelers involved,” said Cain. “Numerous trades were involved in this mourning industry.”

To Cain’s knowledge, this is the largest collection of memento mori to ever go to public auction. The pieces will be exhibited at Freemans’ until the Wednesday sale.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

50% of WHYY’s funding comes from donations made by people just like you.