For instance.

For a television show I’m developing, I request your favorite instantly identifiable cultural artifacts.  “American Gothic,” “The Mona Lisa,” “Guernica,” “Starry Night,” that level of media saturation.

The point of this exercise is to find works of art that anyone at all would recognize and understand to be valuable cultural landmarks.  I have a running list of my own but I’m curious to see what others come up with.

Oh, and one other thing: the artifact must be portable, which leaves out DaVinci’s “Last Supper,” the cathedral of Notre Dame and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Points awarded for not being blindingly obvious.

The artifacts selected will be made into maguffins in order to drive a mystery narrative.

Let me hasten to add that the artifact need not necessarily be an artwork.  It could be a cultural artifact of another sort.  Just as everyday Greek tableware items from ancient times are now considered precious antiquities and put on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (more on that later), what other museum-quality items could one present as a maguffin in a mystery narrative?  Say, the Liberty Bell, or the Wright Bros airplane.

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50 Responses to “Query”
  1. toliverchap says:

    Well for artwork it could be Pollack’s No. 5, 1948 (probably kinda obscure but people are aware of that Modernist stuff). Also The Scream is a good one and wasn’t a version of it stolen a few years ago? Bet there’s a mystery there. I’d say that for cultural artifacts maybe you could pick something odd like a certain type of rare lighter or drinking glass. Oh maybe a rare eye patch or a sword. Yeah go with a sword even though it’s not cutlery swords are universally cool and respected weapons are just good for this sort of thing.

    • Todd says:

      Gee, No. 5? I would have thought either “Lavender Mist” or “Autumn Rhythm” to be more recognizable — but you’re right, any old Pollock would do as a symbol of mid-century American abstraction.

      Military artifacts are an excellent suggestion. Napoleon’s hat, for instance, or MacArthur’s pipe.

      • The original version of Gilbert Stuart’s The Athanaeum?

        • Todd says:

          Gilbert Stuart’s “The Athenaeum” is good, if only because no one knows that it’s called “The Athenaeum.” Justifiably so, in my opinion.

      • toliverchap says:

        No, no, no I just picked that one because it was the one I remembered and the wiki said something about it being the most expensive painting for it’s time (in terms of value not cost of materials,heh things have certainly changed). My vote remains that you go with a sword but perhaps stay away from the Japanese swords though admittedly the coolest ones (SEE The Highlander) it was just used on that NBC show Heroes. Maybe a big Scottish Claymore, yeah.

  2. seamusd says:

    The icon is another one

    • Todd says:

      Re: The icon is another one

      Abbey Road I suppose could be valuable if you’re talking about the master tapes — unless you’re talking about the crossing itself. Now there’s a heist!

      The two Venuses are good choices. La Gioconda, alas, has been killed dead dead dead and ground to dust by Dan Brown.

      Monopoly board: good idea — especially if it were an original. The original, even.

      The VW Beetle is interesting, but I’m not sure I see the angle, same for Warhol’s soupcan — although it is a better choice than my Warhol selection, “Gold Marylin.”

      All the different, controversial editions of Hamlet are an interesting area of inquiry — a heist perpetrated by larcenous Oxfordians!

  3. moroccomole says:

    The Persistence of Memory or Nighthawks perhaps?

  4. Dali’s Lobster Telephone?

    Van Gogh’s Sunflowers might even be more iconic than Starry Night, but not having an iconimometer, I couldn’t tell you.

    On a slightly silly note (but great if you want to include Nazi villains), how about Hitler’s swastika armband?

    • Todd says:

      I’m guessing that everyone on the planet could correctly identify “Persistence of Memory” but only a few hundred thousand could identify the lobster telephone.

      “Sunflowers” is definitely better-known than “Starry Night.” Christ, we had a print of “Sunflowers” in our house when I was growing up. It was one of those “printed on a bumpy surface to resemble a painting” atrocities. And my father was a Sunday painter, but still he tolerated crap like that in the house.

      An important Nazi something-or-other is a good idea.

  5. pjamesharvey says:

    McCartney’s bass guitar
    Magna Carta
    Rosetta Stone
    Michelangelo’s ‘David’

  6. mikeyed says:

    Just two things:

    “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” by Marcel Duchamp


    “Super Mario RPG” by Squaresoft (An original SNES cartridge, that is)

    and yes, it is in fact a work of art.

  7. susumu says:

    The Bayeux Tapestry

    Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (aka the shark in the tank)

  8. planettom says:

    I direct you to my animated version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks here.

    Note that it’s something of an Easter Egg hunt; there are 12 or so unusual items hidden in it (either things that move, or things that you can click on that produce some result).

  9. I hate to tell you this, but I think your project may have already been done.

  10. ayrn says:

    Is the fleur de lis blindingly obvious? Or the yin-yang or om?

    • Todd says:

      None of them are blindingly obvious, but they must also have value. If it were the fleur de lis from Clovis’s throne or the om from the first Dalai Lama’s monk robes, sure.

  11. oletheros says:

    the magna carta or the rosetta stone. or a chinese warrior from the tomb of the first chinese emperor.

  12. teamwak says:

    I really like Pierce Brosnans Thomas Crown Affair re-make. There is much shananigans going on in that museum. I see someone has already posted the key picture from that movie, the businessman in the bowler and apple.

    You may have set us a Hurculean task. There are so many fantastic pieces, both classical and modern to consider. I am reminded that you have mentioned Lovejoy before. Every week they had a different MacGuffin from antiquity. One I always rememebr is Russian Icon (a religeous relief of Mother and Child). Copies, fakes, cross, cross, double-cross. Very good.

    If your after something maybe unique, I caught a fantastic doc about an innoquous broach in King Tuts collection, a Scarab made of an interesting green stone. A reseacher discovered that the stone is glass/silacon and the temperature required to turn it into glass doesnt occur naturally in nature. The only known examples are in the aftermaths of nukes (cut to an old airforce guy talking about the New Mexico tests, walking on crunching glass afterwards). Long story short, it was a rare “airburst” meteor. By exploding in the air it creates a downdraft of heat and energy that is more intense than if the meteor had hit the ground itself. It landed in Southern Egypt 3 mil years ago with the heat of a nuclear explostion, and turned 60km of desert into glass. They even found magnetic traces of the impact area. It was a cool archeology mystery.

  13. revfish says:

    I am surprised that no one has brought up some of the deep historical artifacts, specifically some of the religious artifacts.

    The Spear of Longinus aka the Spear of Destiny

    The Shroud of Turin

    The mantle from the Torah in the First Temple in Jerusalem (not the one pictured)

    Tutankhamun’s death mask, especially since there are authorized replicas

    Just my $.02

    • Todd says:

      Not to mention Beanie Babies.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Are those still popular? Damn, my mom has about three thousand stored in her basement from when my sisters were into them . . . I should go auction them off and buy a new car.

        The best thing about a teddy bear, besides it being dead easy to smuggle out – a painting might be a bit obvious tucked under your arm, but not a toy bear – would be that you could take it apart and cache it in pieces. Stuffing in one place, joints in another, fabric in a third, eyes in a fourth.

        • planettom says:

          What are you, some kind of teddy bear vivisectionist?

          • Todd says:

            Disassembling teddy bears is a little extreme, but smuggling artifacts by first destroying them is a common practice, especially with ancient Greek and pre-Columbian pottery. The skilled smuggler knows how to delicately smash a funeral urn, for instance, so that it might be shipped in a container of who knows what undetected, then glued back together at its final destination. I’m learning that the worlds’ museums are filled with stolen and smuggled items.

  14. My list would include:
    1) Andy Warhol’s Can of Soup
    2) Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroes
    3) Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory
    4) Picasso’s Weeping Woman
    5) Escher’s Ascending and Descending
    6) Rembrandt’s The Night Watchman (not portable but)
    7) Van Gogh’s Starry Night
    8) Van Gogh’s Irises
    9) Van Gogh’s Sunflower
    10)Degas’ Absinthe
    11) Sickert’s Ennui
    12) Vermeer’s Milkmaid
    13) Vermeer’s Girl With the Pearl Earring
    14) Michelangelo’s The Creation (I know)
    15) Da Vinci’s Last Supper (I know)
    16) Michelangelo’s David
    17) Tracey Emin’s My Bed
    18) Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God
    19) Playboy Marilyn Monroe cover
    20) Farrah Fawcett poster
    21) Cover of Revolver

    • Todd says:

      The Night Watch! Of course. I knew there was a done-to-death Rembrandt, I just couldn’t remember which one. Of course, it’s the one used for the cigarette package.

      • LOL!

        Unfortunately, the real thing in the Rikhs Museum in Amsterdam is an absolute monster and takes up a very big room (and is well worth the trip…), so fails on your portability test.

        I would also include the cover of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as iconic, but that is my personal taste…

      • Night Watch…I was in the car to Oxford and wondering if I had led you astray!!!

        I also came up with the Blue Boy and the Laughing Cavalier….

  15. gdh says:

    The Berlin Specimen:

  16. adam_0oo says:

    Are you by any chance developing an adult version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago? Because she used to steal stuff like this all the time, the Leaning Tower of Pizza, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall, her ability to abscond with monuments and artifacts was practically COBRAesque. And that theme song was excellent, I have it on my Ipod.

  17. faery_friend says:

    How about two paintings that haven’t been mentioned?

    Manet’s Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass

  18. ndgmtlcd says:

    – The little tramps’ hat (Charlie Chaplin’s)

    – The last King Tiger tank in perfect working condition.

    – The winged victory of Samothrace

    – Any of the 6 lunar expedition Apollo capsules.

    – The Pergamon Altar (huge, but it’s been dismantled before)

  19. dougo says:

    I’m thinking the Popular Entertainment collection of the Smithsonian Musem of American History, although the set they have pictured is not that inspiring: Kermit the Frog, M*A*S*H signpost, Evel Knievel’s bike. But I think they also have Fonzie’s jacket and Archie Bunker’s chair. There are other Smithsonian artifacts, like Friendship 7 or the Lunar Lander.

    The Declaration of Independence, though that’s already been used as a McGuffin in National Treasure (and others?). US Constitution, Bill of Rights, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, Magna Carta? Not sure if all of those are recognizable on sight. The Great Seal, the Washington Inauguration Bible, Lincoln’s stovepipe hat.

    • Stealing Kermit the Frog… now THERE’S a great spoof story waiting to happen! Children everywhere burst into tears at the news… or scratch their heads, asking, “Who?”

  20. Anonymous says:

    Salvador Dali’s mustache?
    The Starfleet emblem.
    Mercedes Benz hood ornament.

  21. uthuze says:

    Some of these are iconic, others are just notable.

    Lenin’s body
    Lincoln’s stovepipe hat
    Elvis’s death toilet (or just the seat)
    The Arnolfini Wedding
    the original Kermit the Frog
    Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa
    Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait of George Washington
    Oliver Cromwell’s skull
    Caravaggio’s Bacchus
    Manneken-Pis, the Brussels landmark
    Statue of Romulus and Remus suckling from the Wolf
    Bust of Nefertiti
    Howdy Doody