Thursday, June 9, 2011

Grave Goods

Perhaps some of the most iconic and evocative sculptural works to come from the Victorian era were the pieces commissioned as memorials and monuments to the dead. These works of art adorn aging tombs, crypts and graves in cemeteries across the Western world – effigies rendered in stone or bronze. They remain subjects of considerable interest, admired for their fine craftsmanship, timeless beauty, rich symbolic language, and historical significance.

In a bitter twist of irony, the very qualities that make these exquisite sculptures and architectural elements so attractive to many makes them coveted by a cadre of less altruistic characters. I am speaking of those who pillage the cities of the dead for profit.

Over the past several years, thanks to decorating magazines and interior designers, it has become increasingly chic to populate one's home and garden with weathered, antique garden statuary, cast iron urns, ornate wrought iron fences, and various other old architectural elements. It did not take long for the less-savory elements of society to catch on to the potential financial gains that could be reaped from old, neglected, poorly-secured cemeteries. Grave robbers, from the lone desperate addict in need of drug money, to organized gangs, have pried up many old sculptures, urns, benches and even ornate cemetery gates and fences.

With a few notable exceptions , these thieves have little interest in keeping these old treasures for themselves. Often, artifacts are sold to unsuspecting, or more often, unscrupulous antique dealers. These dealers then apply considerably marked-up prices and sell the objects in turn to delighted customers who are completely ignorant of the hallowed origins of their latest garden ornaments.

However, perhaps the most frightening and tragic fate of stolen cemetery articles falls upon the items that are made of bronze. With the price of copper, one of the metals used in bronze alloy, soaring, thieves will resort to stripping cemeteries of memorial urns, fencing, and even statues; which will be taken to junk metal dealers and sold as scrap, to be cut up and melted down and lost forever. Fortunately, on occasion thefts are reported in time for investigators to contact local scrapyards and recover at least pieces of the missing objects.

So what can be done to avoid inadvertently contributing to the destruction and desecration of old graves? If you come across a substantial old piece of statuary or other architectural decoration that you suspect may have been removed from a grave, consider taking the following steps:

  1. Consider the Subject: Victorian era statues were not limited to the graveyard by any stretch. Themes to look for when determining if a piece has been removed from a cemetery include angels, figures with veils or in praying / weeping poses, and items with funereal motifs such as memorial wreaths and crosses.
  1. Ask for Provenance: If the seller's explanation sounds suspicious or vague, be on your guard. It would be preferable if the seller can produce written or photographic documentation of the source of the piece. If you live within close proximity to a city that has many historic graveyards, such as New Orleans, be doubly cautious.
  2. Examine the item's Condition: Articles that have resided in a cemetery for a century or more usually have accumulated a level of wear commensurate with age and exposure to the elements. For items made of marble or other stones, there will likely be cracks and chips from weathering, and perhaps darker stains from acid rain and green organic growths. For items made of bronze, look for the tell-tale aqua green oxidation of the metal. For ironwork, look for heavy rusting.
  3. Think about the Price of the Item: Does the price being asked by the seller seem particularly low when compared to the quality of the piece? Particularly at flea markets or Craigslist sales, this might be a sign that the item has been illegally removed and the seller wants to get it off his hands as soon as possible before the authorities notice.
  4. Do Some Research into Reports of Thefts: This is particularly true for any pieces that seem exceptionally rare and significant – such as large statues, gates, and fences. I've worked at an antique shop and on one occasion a gentleman came in and handed us some reward posters with photos of large ornate iron gates from a local historic cemetery. He asked if we had seen anything like them come into the shop and requested that we display the posters on the shop's bulletin board. Your local newspaper and online regional news reports should also be a tool you consult before investing in a major piece.

Keep in mind, none of these tips I've come up with are foolproof, nor will they necessarily be conclusive indicators that the piece was taken from a cemetery. For example, there are many old iron crosses and other cemetery decorations that have come out of Europe; legitimately removed from graveyards that have been closed and redeveloped by the municipal authorities. Likewise, a piece may have been illegally removed from a grave long ago, and passed down through multiple innocent dealers and collectors since then. It is a question of just taking all the attendant circumstances into consideration when thinking about making a purchase.

Of course, if you would like to avoid the danger of unknowingly buying a stolen item altogether, there are many fine modern reproductions that look similar to the original article. Likewise, it may be worth dealing with a reputable architectural salvage dealer, who will likely not be carrying graveyard antiques.
It is not my intention to frighten people away from thinking about buying every old piece of sculpture or ornamental metalwork they see, and I wouldn't advise anyone from admiring the stately Victorian / Gothic Revival style. After all, I myself am much enamored of such works. My only concern is that would-be collectors take adequate measures to avoid supporting this nefarious and reprehensible - and illegal - trade in the monuments to the dead.

Until next time,
Madame Curatrix

Photo Credits:
1. Stone sculpture at the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. Photo courtesy: Angel-or-Phantom
2. Old life-sized “religious statue” from a local auction house
3. An example of an iron grave marker from Europe. Dargate Auctions 

NOTE: The items photographed and posted in this article are to my knowledge not stolen from cemeteries and their presence here is not intended to suggest that they are or might be. 

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