Gold tobacco box “The Egg of Columbus” with enamel painting on the lid.
Gold tobacco box “The Egg of Columbus” with enamel painting on the lid. Stiftung Schloss Jegenstorf / Photo: Murielle Schlup

Columbus' egg

A tobacco box with a tale or two to tell – or, how a gift from King Frederick I of Württemberg to Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg fell prey to a notorious art thief 200 years later.

Murielle Schlup

Murielle Schlup

Freelance art historian and cultural scientist

In the race with Portugal to discover a sea trade route to India, the navigator Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) set out on his first voyage in 1492, with the backing of the Castilian crown. Convinced that there was a western passage, he decided to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. When he finally sighted land in October and dropped anchor on an island in what is now the Bahamas, he was certain that his mission had been successful. He declared the land masses he had found to be the “West India Islands”, and called the local inhabitants Indians. When Columbus arrived back in Spain in 1493, a triumphant reception awaited him. He was feted as a courageous hero and brilliant navigator, chosen to be the first viceroy of New Spain, and instructed by the royal couple, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragón, to undertake another voyage to explore the coast of the “West Indies”.
Portrait of Christopher Columbus by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483-1561).
Portrait of Christopher Columbus by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483-1561). Wikimedia

You could have done it, but I did it!

But not everyone was so keen to heap honour and glory on Columbus’ head. Pompous members of the Spanish court are said to have been resentful and envious of the “Genoese stranger”, and tried to belittle his achievements in whispered asides. According to one anecdote, during a banquet held for Columbus by Cardinal Mendoza in Barcelona in 1493, these attempts culminated in the following incident: after drinking copious amounts of alcohol, some courtiers present at the table undertook to say that Columbus’ deed was an inevitability and that anyone could have done it. The sea was open in all directions, and even a Spanish seafarer would hardly have missed the mark. In short, they mocked Columbus as merely a chancer who went on an adventure and happened to get lucky. Rather than being angered by this harassment, Columbus is said to have brought boiled eggs to the table and challenged everyone there to stand an egg on its tip without it falling over. Everyone tried, but no one was able to balance an egg. After many unsuccessful attempts and long musings, all those present were adamant that the task at hand was impossible. Without further ado, Columbus took an egg and tapped its tip on the table so that – though slightly crushed at that end – the egg remained upright. Taken aback, his table companions grumbled with a mixture of admiration and annoyance that there was no great art to what he had done with the egg and obviously they too could have done the same thing. Columbus is supposed to have replied: “Certainly, yes; the difference, gentlemen, is that you could have done it, but I did it!”
“Columbus Breaking the Egg” by Thomas Robson
“Columbus Breaking the Egg” by Thomas Robson (1798-1871), after an etching by William Hogarth (1697-1764), London 1752. Columbus is surrounded by his critics, who are presented in a caricature-like manner; the composition of the table tableau is inspired by Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Warrington Museum and Art Gallery
Whether this episode actually took place as described – and whether it involved Columbus at all – has not been proven. The oldest written mention of it can be found in the book Historia del mondo nuovo by Girolamo Benzoni, first published in Venice in 1565. However, Benzoni only knew the story from hearsay. What’s more, there is a similar story in Giorgio Vasari’s collection of artists’ biographies Vite de più eccellenti architetti, pittori e scultori italiani, published in 1550, but in that volume the anecdote relates to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and the construction of the dome of the cathedral in Florence. Perhaps Columbus was merely using a story he already knew, or his admirers simply imputed the response to him. We don’t know; but under the name “Columbus’ egg” or “the egg of Columbus” the anecdote has spawned a figure of speech that is still in common use today in a number of languages, stating that for any problem, no matter how challenging, there is an often obvious solution. However, it’s not enough to just find the solution; it must also be successfully translated into action.

The “egg of Columbus” as a royal gift

King Frederick I of Württemberg (1754-1816) took inspiration from the egg anecdote when he was searching for an appropriate gift for Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg (1771-1844). Frederick, who had been elevated from Elector to King in 1806, visited the famous Bernese agronomist, educationalist and economist at his Hofwyl estate near Münchenbuchsee that same year. The innovative farm, featuring a model training facility that attracted students and others with an interest in the field from across Europe, and even overseas, had a worldwide reputation and there were offshoots in many places inspired by Fellenberg’s theories and achievements.
King Frederick I of Württemberg in coronation robes and armour.
King Frederick I of Württemberg. The power-conscious and – at almost 200 kilos in weight, distributed over two metres in height – in the truest sense of the word “weighty” ruler resolutely pursued his political objectives. Wikimedia
The Bernese agronomist, educationalist and economist Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg.
The Bernese agronomist, educationalist and economist Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg. Swiss National Museum
The king opted for a delicate piece of goldwork, a gold tobacco box (tabatière), the lid of which was painted with the “Egg of Columbus”. With this gift, he rewarded the famous pedagogue for his pioneering spirit, zeal and determination. He lauded Fellenberg as a kind of “conqueror” on his “territories”, as a “discoverer” of new ideas and unconventional methods which he assiduously put into practice, and as a trailblazer who dared to take previously untrodden paths to achieve his objectives. Like Columbus, Fellenberg also had his critics – including, for example, Pestalozzi – but he was unruffled by them.
Gold tobacco box “The Egg of Columbus” with enamel painting on the lid.
A gold tobacco box that tells the story of “The Egg of Columbus” – immortalised on the lid in the finest enamel painting. The artisan clearly used Hogarth’s print (see above) as his template. Stiftung Schloss Jegenstorf / Photo: Murielle Schlup
King Frederick I himself excelled primarily as a politically astute expander of territory. He left the urgently needed agricultural reforms to his son and successor William I, who acquired knowledge of agriculture from an early age and also visited Hofwyl, in 1816, the year of his coronation, when Württemberg (like other places) was stricken by a major supply crisis and hunger problem. William I abolished serfdom and in 1818 set up an educational establishment that was based on Fellenberg’s ideas. In doing so, he laid the foundations for measures to modernise and intensify cultivation and breeding methods, which he continued to build on in subsequent years, enabling him to increase agricultural production. Thanks to his successful efforts, he made a name for himself not only as a “farmer among kings”, but also as a “king of agriculture”.

The “egg of Columbus” as stolen goods

Back to the gold box with the “Egg of Columbus”. The box later ended up, together with Fellenberg’s estate, in a museum founded on the Hofwyl grounds and, after the museum was closed, it found its way to Jegenstorf Castle, where it was exhibited in an antique display cabinet. There, in 2000, it caught the eye of Stéphane Breitwieser from Alsace, the “world’s most successful art thief”, as the media called him at the time. At the turn of the millennium, the fanatical art lover with a distinct kleptomaniac bent was one of the world’s most wanted criminals. He plied his “trade” mainly in France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland, robbing carefully selected institutions – mostly smaller museums, but also castles, churches, monasteries, galleries and auction houses.
Both an art lover and a kleptomaniac: Stéphane Breitwieser appears at a court hearing in Strasbourg in January 2005.
Both an art lover and a kleptomaniac: Stéphane Breitwieser appears at a court hearing in Strasbourg in January 2005. Keystone / EPA / Christian Hartmann
Without violence, unarmed, undisguised and often without gloves on, Breitwieser would enter the museum during opening hours, buy a ticket as a regular visitor, seek out his favoured booty, take the chosen piece and disappear, while his girlfriend and accomplice kept watch. He was able to open most of the display cases using a simply Swiss army knife. He hid the loot under his jacket or threw it out of a window, returning later to collect it. He would have used a similar modus operandi with the gold box at Jegenstorf Castle. The display case had only a small crack in the glass next to the lock, which he skilfully picked. Because he arranged everything else in the display neatly back in place and then locked the case, no one noticed the theft – until the Alsace police returned the box undamaged some months later. Breitwieser’s thieving “campaign of conquest” ended, for the time being, in 2001, when he was arrested in Lucerne. He was sentenced to six years in prison by Swiss and French courts.
To cover her son’s tracks, after his arrest Breitwieser’s mother destroyed and disposed of dozens of paintings and drawings in the trash
To cover her son’s tracks, after his arrest Breitwieser’s mother destroyed and disposed of dozens of paintings and drawings in the trash, including works by Pieter Brueghel, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Albrecht Dürer. She threw more than a hundred objects into the Rhône-Rhine Canal. Many of these items were able to be retrieved from the water after the water level dropped – among them the box featuring the “Egg of Columbus”. Keystone / AP / Cedric Joubert
After Breitwieser styled himself, in an autobiography penned during his stint in prison, as an avid art lover who was astonishingly successful in pulling off even seemingly impossible thefts using totally mundane solutions, he was able for a while to enjoy a certain cachet; he was feted at book readings, and revelled in his fame as “l’Arsène Lupin des musées”, after the fictional gentleman thief. But since his release in 2005 he has relapsed repeatedly – even down to the present day. Most recently, since it came out that, contrary to his oft-stated credo of not profiting from the sale of stolen goods, he did attempt to turn stolen goods into cash, his image as an arty gentleman rogue has finally been shattered. And the moral of the story? Not every simple and oh-so-brilliant “solution” really stands up to scrutiny – often this is only apparent with hindsight – and in this case, it’s not even legal.

Columbus’ rotten egg

Columbus’ own unorthodox and apparently simple solution led initially to a triumph that also marked the high point of his career. But until the day he died, Columbus was unaware that in reality he had missed his ultimate objective due to incorrect calculations, and therefore never actually completed his mission. In any case, he doggedly insisted to the end that he was the first to find the sea route to Asia. In fact, that sea route was eventually found in 1497-1498 by Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) with a solution that was different by 90 degrees: approaching India via a southerly circumnavigation of Africa. Columbus continued to ignore the growing mountain of evidence that his “discovery” was actually a continent hitherto unknown to Europe. So it’s not surprising that this continent ultimately was named not after Columbus, but after the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), who was one of the first navigators to follow his conviction that there was a “New World” west of Europe: America.
Woodcut to illustrate Columbus’ first account of his travels, Epistola de insulis nuper inventis, 1493
12 October 1492: Contrary to what he believed, Columbus did not land on an island off India, but on an island in the Bahamas which the natives called Guanahani. Woodcut to illustrate Columbus’ first account of his travels, Epistola de insulis nuper inventis, 1493. Universitätsbibliothek Basel
In the centuries that followed, Columbus was once again celebrated as a great explorer and immortalised as such in the history books. In modern times, however, he has been toppled from his pedestal again – in many places, literally – over claims that the violent subjugation of the Caribbean islands begun by Columbus touched off a demographic catastrophe that ultimately laid the foundation for the broader colonialisation of the “New World”, bloody and far-reaching as it was. The passing of judgment on Columbus’ achievements – and especially the criticism of their impacts – is the subject of long-running debate.

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