Twelve years ago, when Dan’s Papers had its offices on Main Street in Bridgehampton, I was standing out on our front lawn with Lou Meisel, the man who owned the property next door, and we were looking out at a payloader in the process of unloading two antique statues, each of which weighed about a ton, which would shortly be erected on that property.
“Those statues are very valuable,” Lou told me. “They may not be here very long. The Louvre wants to buy them for a million dollars. Flew a bunch of men to New York on the Concorde to look at them. They were originally from the Place de la Concorde in Paris. They went missing. Now they’ve turned up in New York.”
Lou told me that the tenant of his property, Gil Shapiro, owned the statues. Gil’s Urban Archaeology would be filled with garden statuary, iron gates, antique bird baths and expensive lawn furnishings, and Gil was having the statues placed here in Bridgehampton because they were so unusual they would attract business.
“The Louvre has a first-dibs arrangement on the statues while they raise the money to take them,” Gil told me. “So they are just here as show pieces for now.”
I wondered what would prevent anyone from stealing them. He told me that they were bolted to heavy concrete bases underground. It would be hard to do.
I’ve spent my working life retelling fantastic stories in Dan’s Papers from what people tell me. I love these stories. And so this one, in 2002, soon got into Dan’s Papers. Was it true? Lou Meisel swore it was. Gil Shapiro had told it to him. Gil not only owns the store, but also is Lou’s next-door neighbor in Sagaponack. Both men are quietly successful in their businesses—Gil in antique statuary, Lou with his Louis K. Meisel Art Gallery in Manhattan.
Here is what Lou told me that day.
“Gil first learned of these statues when a man in New Jersey had put an ad in a trade journal offering them for sale for $50,000. The guy’s grandfather had passed away and the family had inherited the house and wanted to dispose of these statues that stood around the pool.”
The statues were, from the waist up, powerfully built oversize naked men made of iron, 10’ tall, each holding a large fish to their chest. The fish faced upwards, their mouths open in surprise. Water could be made to spurt out of their mouths if it were hooked up right. Below the muscular naked men’s waists, these statues were fabulous scaly fish whose bodies leaped up from the ground, their tails flipping out behind them. They certainly were amazing creatures.
“Gil went to New Jersey to have a look at them. He offered the heir $10,000. The heir said that wasn’t enough, so Gil recommended he take the pictures of the statues to Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Maybe they might like them.
“A month or two later, having not seen that these pieces had been sold in any of the journals, Gil went back to New Jersey and offered them $20,000. Now they wanted $75,000, which of course meant they did not have an offer even for $50,000. Eventually, Gil bought them for $55,000. And he had them trucked back to his shop in New York City where he put the two of them up for sale for $80,000.
“The following year, the owner of an auction house contacted Gil and said he’d seen them for sale at the store and wanted to put them in an upcoming auction. Gil agreed, but then was shocked to see the statues gracing the cover of the auction catalogue for $250,000. Gil had no idea about this. Where had the auctioneer come up with that number? The auctioneer said it was just for luck. In the end, there were no offers.
“But the guy in New Jersey had seen the pieces on the cover of the auction catalogue and went ballistic. He felt he’d been suckered out of their true value, and he sued Gil. Eventually they agreed that if they sold for $80,000 the New Jersey guy wouldn’t get anything but if they sold for $150,000 he’d get $30,000 and so forth.
“Then Gil got called by the Louvre. They had also seen the catalogue. These were statues that were standing in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. But those statues in the Place de la Concorde were still there. How could this be? According to the Louvre, the statues currently in the Place de la Concorde were not the originals. The originals, made of iron, were put there around 1840. But then, during the First World War, when the German army was approaching Paris, the French feared that these statues would be stolen, and so had used the original statues as molds and made fake copies of them, put the fakes at the Place de la Concorde, and carted off these originals to be stored in barns. Years went by, and at a certain point the Louvre no longer remembered where they had put them. Well, here they were in New York City.”
The French experts arrived. They photographed them, measured them, took a chip from one of them. They were the real thing. And they wanted them back. The money would be along shortly.
But the money was not along shortly, it seemed. From the window of my office on the second floor of the building I owned next door, I was able to see these very valuable statues for the next 12 years. It did make me wonder if this fantastic story was true. How come the Louvre had not picked them up?
Earlier this year, with the statues still out there, Urban Archaeology announced it would close its Bridgehampton operation. The statues would go to New York City and everything in the shop in Bridgehampton would be put up for auction at the store in New York. As a result, I thought this would be a good time to re-tell this story to a new generation of readers. It is still such a wonderful story, true or not.
But this is no longer 2002. It’s 13 years later. We now can, each of us, do a pretty good job of verifying everything we want to by using Google. And so, in these days, one doesn’t just publish a legend without checking it out in some way. If it turns out it is not true, one would avoid it or present it as a fantastic legend. If checking doesn’t answer questions, one can publish it with a caveat that it is being presented without confirmation. Or if it comes from a principal in the action, one can say, “according to so-and-so who was there at the time…”
In any case, good journalism would always dictate you don’t inflict harm on someone for something you can’t confirm. I pretty much dismissed seeing any harm in it, unless it was to the marauding Germans.
I went to Google. I found no record of the Louvre seeking out the old statues. However, in 2002 most old things in print had not yet been digitalized, and many never would be.
I then talked to Gil Shapiro, the owner of Urban Archaeology. Gil told me it was largely true, but that some of the details were wrong from what Lou told me. But he would back it if I wrote it up the way Lou told me. “It’s been told and re-told with many variations,” he said.
In 2002, Dan’s Papers did not employ a fact checker, only reaching out to a fact checker on the rare occasion when something very controversial was in the works. Nowadays, we have a fact checker who goes over everything. It has to be fact-checked to go in the magazine. I sent him the article. He wrote back, highlighting certain paragraphs, “None of this is true.” Since nothing gets in the magazine unless he passes it, I set out to see what I could find. The rest of this article is about this search. You will soon see it got changed around quite a bit, not only from Gil, who, when pressed, gave me details, but also from an old, obscure newspaper clipping Gil had in a scrapbook from 2002.
Gil told me that the statues were not removed during the First World War, but 20 years later, during the Depression. The French were afraid that impoverished citizens might steal the statues. He also told me that he wasn’t sure but that the French probably hired poor starving artists to make the replacement sculptures, just as here in America in FDR’s time we had WPA projects for starving artists to try and jump-start the American economy out of the Depression. These new sculptures are similar, but not identical. You can tell the new from the old. So no molds were made. No “fakes” were put in place.
He told me that it wasn’t he who had first found the statues and then recommended Christie’s and Sotheby’s. It was the other way around. The heir had approached Christie’s and Sotheby’s first, and when they said they weren’t interested they recommended Gil. When they rejected the statues, they apparently told the heir they were not of much value, something that turned out to be important in the lawsuit.
“The lawsuit was filed BEFORE the auction,” Gil told me. “And the statues had to be removed from the sale, along with other items I had put into this auction. It was a mess.”
The heir had seen the statues not in the auction catalogue but in a two-page, full-color ad in Architectural Digest where they were featured for a quarter-million dollars.
“It cost me $242,000 in legal fees to defend this case. It’s illegal to hoodwink somebody out of something if you know it is worth much more. But in this case, I did not know they were worth more. I lost the case, at first. I’d have to pay up if they got sold according to a formula. But I appealed. And in the appeal, we were able to get documents that showed the judge that the auction houses hadn’t valued them at much either. So he threw the whole case out.”
It was also not true that the Louvre had called him, having seen them in the auction catalogue (or in the ad). Gil had called them. He was on vacation in Sagaponack when he came upon a coffee table book being published by Rizzoli that featured old black-and-white photographs of historical sites in Paris. And in this volume, he saw, to his amazement, a photograph taken in 1925 of the statues standing around in the reflecting pool in the Place de la Concorde. And they were HIS STATUES. He immediately called the Louvre.
Indeed, the Louvre then sent experts on the supersonic Concorde. And the offer to buy them was true. But it was not a million dollars.
“They wanted to buy three of the statues for $450,000,” he said.
So how did it end?
“I had accepted their offer,” Gil said. “And we were about to complete the transaction. But then Hezbollah attacked Israel from the north and the French government announced that American military aircraft were not being permitted to fly over French air space. I told them this was a bad time to make this deal. Keep your money.”
That’s what he said. I asked him to repeat it. He said it again.
At this point, I asked him if he had any proof that this whole transaction happened, and he said indeed he did. He had kept a scrapbook. And in it he had a photograph of the picture in the Rizzoli book of his statues. And he also had a news clipping.
This news clipping had been sent to him on either June 12 or December 6, 1992. It had been dated by a fax machine as 12-6-92. And in Europe they put the day first and the month second when they abbreviate a date. It came from an English language newspaper in Europe called The European, which had just come out. Gil’s name was in the news clipping. LOUVRE TO BUY BACK LOST STATUES was the headline. And it told the story confirming the entire incident, but not that the sale had fallen through. It was published before that.
There were two important discrepancies. One is that it says that the statues were replaced in the late 1920s, not in the 1930s. So the new ones were not Depression sculptures. They were Roaring Twenties sculptures.
It also said that whereas the old statues were iron, the new ones were bronze. Why bronze?
I Googled “statues iron bronze.” Turns out iron statues rust. Bronze statues, if taken care of, last forever. The French were interested in forever and in the Roaring Twenties could afford it. Or maybe there was another reason. I asked Gil about this.
“I forgot to mention the new ones were bronze,” he said. “But I knew it. The reason is that our iron ones have no rust and they’re 150 years old. They’re probably good for another 150 years or maybe more. As to why the French had new ones made, I could not tell you.”
Maybe the Louvre would know. Well, the search was over. Also, we’re done looking about how they got to America. We’ve buffed and polished this story, we’ve righted some wrongs, fixed some details. Now it can be told. Better. But maybe still not perfect.
For instance, we still don’t know how these statues made their way to Livingston, New Jersey.
One final detail: Gil told me they couldn’t be stolen from Bridgehampton very easily. Below ground, they were wired into the burglar alarm system at his store. If they were being yanked out of the ground, the alarm would go off, and the cops would come.