Catherine Lapinsh

ICOM Kyoto 2019

This article contains abstracts from the presentation made at the ICOMAM meeting on the 3d of September in Kyoto during the general confernece of the International Commettee of Museums

The Tallinn Museum of Orders of Knighthood first opened its doors to the public in the beginning of 2017 and quickly became a must-see destination for many visitors to the Estonian capital. The idea of creating a museum of phaleristics came from the members of the Board of Directors of the Estonian company Wett Eesti who were enthusiastic collectors of various objects, such as stamps, medals, engravings, and for some time had been gathering a collection of orders’ insignia.


The name that we have chosen for the museum was emblematic of its objective as the idea behind the museum was not just to showcase the magnificent collection of orders, but to tell the history of these organisations, show how the word ‘order’ itself changed through time and space. From monastic fraternities to powerful military orgnisations, that governed lands, and Estonia itself, to Royal elite “clubs” and finally awards for bravery and various accomplishments. By relating to the visitors the role that the orders of chivalry played from the 14th to the 20th centuries, the museum provides them with the opportunity to look upon the history of the world from a different perspective – through the prism of orders and decorations.

Orders are emblematic of the processes that were happening in the country at a certain time; their bestowal or not upon members of Royal houses of other countries speaks volumes about the level of friendship or kinship, open and secret alliances.

One good example is the introduction of orders in Russia by Peter the Great. It was not by chance that the Russian honours system took its roots during Peter’s reign, as this was the time that the country was establishing itself as an equal on the European arena. Differences in traditions of diplomatic ceremonial and misunderstandings of the customs of European countries were hindering this process and making Russia’s embassies come across as ‘barbarian’. But after his journey across Europe with the Grand Embassy the young Tsar understood the importance of symbols, and that to be accepted as an equal by the leaders of European countries, it was important to look like one. Of course the imperial image would not be complete without a sash over the shoulder and the badge and star of one’s own high order.  The prestige of the Order of Saint Andrew, which Peter founded as soon as he returned from this trip, grew only with the country’s accomplishments – the first four foreigners to be bestowed the honour had to be expelled for lack of respect to the orders’ insignia which they never wore.


The museum houses forty showcases with over 700 original items. One can skim through the collection in a couple of minutes, but most of our visitors spend well over an hour here, especially if they take the free audio guide in which we tried to concentrate on the most interesting moments from the history of orders. First of all these are the colourful legends – about the piquant situation in which the lover of the English King found herself when her garter fell from her thigh in the middle of a ball; about the Battle at Lyndanisse, which resulted in the Danes getting a state flag and Tallinn – its name; about the Sacred Treasures of the goddess Amaterasu – ancestor of the Emperor of Japan, and the order named after the treasures.

 Of course no one comes to our museum expecting to learn about Japan. However, we view orders and decorations as the essence of the country – all the symbolism, art, mythology and history are condensed into one badge, one star, one collar – and the stories are endless. 

Japanese orders are a perfect example. Founded during the restoration of Meiji, the highest of the Japanese orders is the Order of the Chrysanthemum. In Japan the coat of arms is not used as the symbol of the Empire, in its stead, the Imperial crest has been employed. It is customary for each prominent Japanese family to have its own characteristic crest or ‘mon’ which is commonly displayed on the kimono. Since the 13th century, the crest of the emperors has been the chrysanthemum.

But there probably is no other order that tells more about its country as the Order of the Sacred Treasures. It incorporates the symbols for the three Sacred Imperial Treasures of Japan: the Yata Mirror, the Yasakani Jewel, and the Emperor’s personal sword Kusanagi. The mirror, in bright silver, is placed in the centre of the badge on a blue background. It is surrounded by red jewels and white enamelled rays, representing the sword.  

Legend has it that the goddess of the sun Amaterasu hid in a cave from her brother, god of the storm Susanoo, thus plunging the whole world into darkness. In order to lure her out, the goddess of dawn hung the Yata Mirror and the Yasakani Jewel outside the cave. This worked quite well and light was restored. The sword Kusanagi was later presented to Amaterasu by Susanoo as a token of apology for his ruthless behaviour. Amaterasu gave the treasures to her grandson Ningi-no-Mikoto, whom she sent to Earth to rule over Japan. Ningi’s great-grandson Jimmu Tenno became the first Emperor of Japan. He inherited the treasures and since then they were passed on from generation to generation holding similar significance as crowns in the European ceremonies.

The insignia displayed at the Tallinn Museum are true masterpieces of art and craftsmanship, in gold and silver, lavishly decorated with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Many are of immense historical value as they once belonged to emperors, princes and princesses, famous military commanders, presidents, and politicians. True undisputed highlights of the collection include insignia of the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Charles I, the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece of the State Chancellor of the Austrian Empire Klemens von Metternich, Britain’s Princess Mary’s star of the Order of the British Empire and many others. A recent addition to our collection, waiting to be put on exhibit is the beautiful diamond insignia of the Order of the Starry Cross of Austria, which belonged to Empress Charlotte of Mexico.

A true detective story is connected to one of the most valuable pieces from our collection – the badge of the Order of the White Eagle. A unique badge and in excellent condition initially believed to be the property of Stanislaus Poniatowski, the badge that he most likely bestowed on Catherine the Great, it proved to be something much more valuable. With the help from Liudmila Gavrilova, curator from the Armoury Chamber in the Moscow Kremlin Museums, it was possible to identify the badge’s provenance.

 Liudmila determined that monogram on the revers of the badge was that of Augustus the Strong, and so the badge could not have been bestowed in the time of Catherine the Great as it had to have been awarded during Augustus’ reign, before his death in February 1733. In the Russian State Archive, a document was discovered that gives detailed values for the stones and their location on a badge called ‘Polish cavalry with diamonds’ transferred for storage after the death of Peter and his wife. The description matched word for word the badge at our museum, except for one significant detail: the distinguishing feature of this badge, as you can see, was a lavishly decorated diamond-studded loop, which in the description had only one large diamond.

The description of this badge surfaces again, thirty years later, when Catherine the Great was decorating her bedchamber at the Winter Palace turning it into the Diamond Room. According to one document, funds were allocated by her for two new stones for “the Polish order ring, through which the sash is passed, in place of the lost ones”. 

Specialists from the Kremlin Museums came to Tallinn and examined our badge – two diamonds had indeed been added at a later date. All evidence now pointed to the fact that the badge was the one described in the documents. The Order was bestowed on Peter in 1712 by the founder himself, and the signing of a secret treaty against Sweden was also part of the itinerary. After the death of King Augustus II and Danish King Frederick IV, the insignia of the Order of St Andrew, granted to them by Peter I, were not returned to Russia, which suggests that the exchange of orders in 1712–13 was perceived to be gifts and the insignia did not need to be returned. Insignia bestowed at later dates were promptly returned after mourning ceremonies. 

In the years following the Russian revolution, together with many other valuables, the badge, paired with an early 18th-century star of the same order, were sold off. The star has the characteristic scratch marks of testing for precious metals by the State Committee that valued and sold items of precious metals and stones, taking care to erase all provenance, making the objects nearly impossible to attribute.

This story, as well as the history of the House of Romanovs through the prism of the honours system, is described in Liudmila Gavrilova’s book Foreign Orders of the Russian Emperors. With the help of my colleagues from the Royal Collection Trust and the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Stephen Patterson and Tom Bergroth, we have prepared its English edition, which should be out by the end of the year. Collaboration on the translation of this book by specialists from different countries proved very fruitful and led to additional discoveries.

As our museum collection is comprised of pieces acquired mainly through auctions, the issue of fakes is a serious one. For this reason from the very beginning, we had established a research laboratory where we conduct active work on the study of the insignia, the composition of the enamels and metals of the badges, collars and stars.

Our research is based on the Niton XL3 GOLDD+XRF analyser – a hand-held instrument for chemical analysis of metal and enamels using the X-ray fluorescence technique – the emission of characteristic X-rays from a material that has been excited by being bombarded with high-energy X-rays or gamma rays. This analizer can be used to establish the presence of even the difficult-to-determine light elements, without helium purging or vacuum pumps. Unlike destructive testing methods, samples remain intact and undamaged.

 We are working towards developing and perfecting a technique for dating and placing the production of specific insignia, as well as determining its authenticity. This work is carried out in cooperation with other museums, including the world’s largest museum of orders of chivalry, our inspiration and model – the Museum of the Legion of Honour in Paris, its director Anne De Chefdebien and curator Tom Dutheil. In the coming years, we are hoping to make several publications on the results of this work together with our colleagues.

One of the objects that were meticulously researched at our laboratory and proved to be a high-quality modern copy was the collar of the Order of the Black Eagle, previously thought to have been an original 2nd model (1840–1918) Hossauer-made piece. It is included in the guidebook and we are planning to return it to the exhibition. It will be the only item displayed by us as a museum copy, as this collar is extremely rare and perfectly made, and in itself tells so many interesting stories: of the challenges of collecting, of old and modern jewel craft, and of the work that goes into determining the authenticity of items.

The ultimate aim of our Museum is to encourage inquiry, to spread information on the nature of orders and the science of phaleristics, to inspire the undertaking of a new fascinating hobby or profession linked to insignia collecting and research, and to provide a valuable resource to those who are already interested in this field.


We look forward to seeing you in Tallinn and in our beautiful museum.