If scholars are upset by the upcoming offering, Raphael Chatroux, a Freeman’s specialist, says that staff members “certainly understand the uniqueness of this situation and therefore proceed with the most caution and sensitivity so as not to upset anyone.” Freeman’s hopes “for institutional interest” in the sculpture, which is expected to fetch between $250,000 and $400,000. The sculpture was “uninsured and not even secured to the base” in Middleburg, he said.
He remarked on the removal of other significant grave site sculptures in recent years for safekeeping.
While this may be true, experts say that when major cemetery artworks are removed for their own safety, they typically end up in non-profit public spaces rather than being sold at an auction. The Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan has acquired a Louis Comfort Tiffany studio-made window depicting a grapevine-laced colonnade from a nearby cemetery that had been vandalised and stolen. After drawing throngs of tourists to Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, “Bird Girl” by Sylvia Shaw Judson has been relocated to the Telfair Academy.
It’s not clear if graveyard vandalism and theft are increasing in the United States. Damage and loss can go unnoticed for years in cemetery’s remote corners because no official statistics are kept. According to Dr. Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, “it is an old and persistent problem.” Art Recovery International CEO Christopher A. Marinello quoted an ancient Roman gravestone warning: “Anyone who defecates on, or violates, this tomb will be cursed with blindness,” he explained.
Even if the Merrill descendants had foresight to protect the Rodin depictions of a mother and a doomed teen from theft, or worse, in the Virginia countryside, the optics of the dismantling for sale are unflattering at the very least. Michael Trinkley, a cemetery preservation expert in South Carolina, said, “It does look very, very bad.”