Rodin Bronze From Family Plot Is Heading to Auction – The New York Times
Experts criticize the decision to remove this grave site memorial and sell it privately. The family says it’s a way to provide safekeeping.
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Auguste Rodin’s powerful bronze statue of a dying girl cradled by her mother, which spent nearly a century atop a pedestal in a cemetery in Middleburg, Va., is now headed for sale at Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia on Feb. 22.
Descendants of the grieving mother depicted by Rodin — Elizabeth Musgrave Croswell Merrill, a philanthropist and arts patron — have removed the sculpture, saying they needed to protect it from theft. While in some cemeteries families are permitted to remove their own ancestors’ markers, scholars describe the Rodin move as rare in American graveyard history. And, they point out, many important sculptures removed from cemeteries have gone to public spaces, not private sale.
Virginia Jenkins, a Merrill descendant, said in a brief phone interview that the sculpture was becoming widely recognized and that it was vulnerable to theft. (Its fans over the years have included Jane Fonda, who blogged about it in 2013.) The family has kept an identical casting of the Rodin work, she said. She and other relatives did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking further comment.
Dennis Montagna, president of the Association for Gravestone Studies, said that the rare example of important graveside art removed for profit “just so runs against the original intent” of the generation of Merrills who had commissioned and imported the Rodin. A burial ground “is not intended as a temporary exhibit” nor an outdoor salesroom, he said.
Elizabeth Merrill, who died in 1928, at 74, inherited several family fortunes and outlived close relatives with tragically short lives. In 1887, she gave birth to her daughter, Sally, a few weeks after the sudden death of her husband, Charles Croswell, a former governor of Michigan. Her stepson, also named Charles Croswell, fatally overdosed on morphine in 1891. In 1904, Sally died, reportedly because of complications from diabetes. Elizabeth and her second husband, the timber tycoon Thomas Merrill, commissioned the memorial from Rodin in 1908. Known by various titles over the years, including “Mother and Her Dying Daughter,” it was left unfinished when Rodin died in 1917. Swirls of rough stone nearly engulf the two figures, as if they were clinging together in stormy seas.
The family eventually arranged for two authorized posthumous castings to be created in bronze, one destined for the cemetery and the other to be kept indoors. The original marble version remains at the Musée Rodin in Paris. The museum also owns Rodin’s plaster bust portraits of Merrill family members, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington has a rough-hewed marble carving of a child’s hand that was donated by Merrill descendants.
Jérôme Le Blay, a Rodin expert based in Paris, said that he disagreed with the family’s decision to remove the Middleburg bronze monument. “But what can we do, other than say we’re not happy about it?” He added that the international market for a former grave marker might be limited; in some cultures, he said, tomb artifacts are considered “bad luck.”
Le Blay noted that nearly all of Rodin’s sculptures in European graveyards have been well preserved as public art. Laure de Margerie, the director of the French Sculpture Census, a comprehensive database about pre-1960 French sculptures in North American public collections, said that no other Rodin works are known to exist in American cemeteries. The only piece in the United States comparable to the Merrill memorial is a casting of Rodin’s “The Shade” at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center, home to the High Museum of Art, which was installed in honor of Atlantans killed in a 1962 plane crash in Paris.
Raphaël Chatroux, a specialist at Freeman’s, when informed of scholars’ reactions to the upcoming offering, replied that the staff members “certainly understand the uniqueness of the situation and therefore proceed with the utmost caution and sensitivity so as not to upset anyone.” The sculpture, estimated to bring $250,000 to $400,000, had been “uninsured and not even secured to the base” in Middleburg, he said, and added that Freeman’s is “hoping for institutional interest” in the sale.
He noted that other important grave site sculptures have been removed for safekeeping in recent years.
But experts point out that when major cemetery artworks are removed for their own protection, they typically go to nonprofit public spaces rather than auction blocks. A window made by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio that depicts a grapevine-laced colonnade has been transferred to the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan from a nearby cemetery that had suffered vandalism and theft. Sylvia Shaw Judson’s “Bird Girl” has been moved to the Telfair Academy in Savannah, Ga., after attracting tourist throngs at the city’s Bonaventure Cemetery.
It is not clear, meanwhile, whether vandalism and theft at American graveyards are worsening. No official statistics are kept, and damage and loss often go unnoticed for years in cemeteries’ remote corners. What is certain is that it “is an old and persistent problem,” said Dr. Sharon Flescher, the executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research. Christopher A. Marinello, the chief executive of Art Recovery International, which specializes in recovering looted or stolen art, quoted from a warning inscribed on an ancient Roman gravestone: “Anyone who defecates on, or violates, this tomb will be cursed with blindness.”
Most of the dozen experts interviewed for this article were in agreement on one core issue: Even if the Merrill descendants acted with foresight to protect the Rodin portrayals of a mother and doomed teenager from theft, or worse, in the Virginia countryside, the optics of the dismantlement for sale are unflattering at best. “It does look very, very bad,” Michael Trinkley, a cemetery preservation expert in South Carolina, said.