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Born of Hell, Lost After Inferno; Rodin Work From Trade Center Survived, and Vanished - The New York Times

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N.Y. / Region|Born of Hell, Lost After Inferno; Rodin Work From Trade Center Survived, and Vanished


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Born of Hell, Lost After Inferno; Rodin Work From Trade Center Survived, and Vanished


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Amid all the cement and steel and bodies that fell from the sky in the World Trade Center collapse, there was art. Most of it was destroyed that September morning, but a few sculptures tumbled a quarter-mile before coming to uneasy rest in the fresh hot debris. They were Rodins.

A bust from ''The Burghers of Calais,'' its mask of dignity now dented. Two of the three anguished figures from ''The Three Shades,'' broken almost beyond recognition. And, it appears, a cast of the artist's most famous work, one inspired by Dante: ''The Thinker,'' in endless contemplation of the human condition.

Now, having survived an actual inferno, these sculptures continue to intrigue, though in ways never imagined by their maker.

For there is a small trailer sitting on top of the mountainous Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Outside its locked doors, workers hunt through the last truckloads of World Trade Center rubble for any remains of the estimated 2,800 victims. Inside rest an engine from American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the north tower; two airplane wheels; two figures from ''The Three Shades''; and the bust of the Calais burgher, sitting upright and facing the door.


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''There's extraordinary symbolism, isn't there,'' said John L. Tancock, a vice president at Sotheby's auction house and the former curator of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. ''They have survived in this state, and it can be viewed as an inspirational story.''

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Inspirational up to a point: ''The Thinker'' is missing.

As reported earlier this month by The New York Post, city investigators believe that the 28-inch sculpture may have been stolen, after having been recovered by a firefighter at the disaster site late last year. As a result, investigators have been at Fresh Kills and at ground zero in recent weeks, flashing a photograph of ''The Thinker'' and asking, in effect: Have you seen this symbol of humanity?

Millions of dollars of artwork was destroyed in the disaster of Sept. 11, from privately owned paintings displayed in corporate offices to publicly owned pieces, like the ''World Trade Center'' tapestry by Miró that hung in the mezzanine of 2 World Trade Center. But no matter how valuable the artwork, it all seemed trivial, even meaningless, given how many people were lost.

For example, the Cantor Fitzgerald bond trading firm and its chairman, Howard W. Lutnick, have refused to discuss in any depth the loss of its art collection. What did any of that matter when 658 of the company's 960 employees working in the building -- including Mr. Lutnick's brother, Gary -- perished in the collapse?

Still, the works of Auguste Rodin have long figured in the culture at Cantor Fitzgerald; until a few years ago, the company symbol was ''The Thinker.''

The statue's creator was as industrious as he was gifted. Rodin made several casts of some of his sculptures and often sized them to order for patrons, a standard 19th-century practice. Before he died in 1917, he bequeathed his plaster models and founding rights to the French government. Since then, the Musée Rodin in Paris has occasionally authorized the limited casting of certain works; that is why, for example, there are a few dozen casts of ''The Thinker'' in museums and private collections around the world.

This does not mean that authentic casts of ''The Thinker'' can be purchased just anywhere. As Clare Vincent, a specialist in European sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, put it, ''They don't come in hundreds by any means.''

But one man, B. Gerald Cantor, did spend many years acquiring the French artist's work, eventually amassing the world's largest private Rodin collection, with more than 750 sculptures, prints and drawings. A co-founder of Cantor Fitzgerald, he used some of the company's office space in the World Trade Center as a Rodin gallery for several years, before donating most of his collection to museums and galleries.


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He died in 1996, shortly after a tense settlement with Mr. Lutnick regarding control of the company's future. Despite the internal squabbling, the company's embrace of Rodin continued; the company maintained a small collection of Rodin sculptures, and displayed some of his most famous works in its lobby on the 105th floor of the north tower.

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On a limestone pedestal sat a bust of Jean d'Aire from Rodin's ''Burghers of Calais,'' which honored six citizens who, in 1347, yoked themselves together and prepared to die so that their city could be spared the further wrath of an invading English army. In Jean D'Aire's expression, Mr. Tancock said, can be seen myriad emotions: ''Heroism, resignation, strength; dignity in a humiliating situation.''

Also dominating the lobby were ''The Thinker'' and ''The Three Shades,'' both born of a decades-long quest by the artist to complete an ambitious work, ''The Gates of Hell,'' that had been inspired by his reading of Dante, Baudelaire and the Bible. The Adam-like figures in ''The Three Shades'' seem in torment, ''The Thinker'' in almost somber concentration.

These and other works were on display when Flight 11 slammed into the north tower on Sept. 11.

More than two months later, Joan Vita Marotta -- who until 1989 was the curator of the Cantor gallery in the north tower -- was sitting in her suburban Buffalo home, watching a news program about the recovery efforts at Fresh Kills. ''All of a sudden the camera shows a fuselage from one of the airplanes,'' Ms. Marotta recalled. ''And lying next to it is a portion of 'The Shades.' ''

Ms. Marotta's eyes had not deceived her. Most of ''The Three Shades'' had made it to the landfill, although barely: a severed foot and two headless bodies.

Several months later, in March, a firefighter taking part in the recovery effort in Lower Manhattan found the bust of Jean d'Aire. It was turned over to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the trade center site and which photographed the bust and documented the discovery (''bronze head sculpture'') in its computer logs.

A few days later, on March 11, the Port Authority turned the bust over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which stored it in that trailer at Fresh Kills, along with the remnants of ''The Three Shades'' and an engine from the very plane that had struck the north tower. And there these battered Rodins sit, until the day -- possibly this week -- when representatives from Cantor Fitzgerald come to retrieve them.

''It's just absolutely astonishing,'' said Ms. Vincent, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ''It really is incredible to me that they could have survived that sort of inferno, even remotely in recognizable form.''

Even more interesting -- at least to the city's Department of Investigation -- is what is not in that trailer; namely, ''The Thinker.'' Rumors of its survival persisted for months, until investigators sensed that the story was much more than yet another urban myth to rise from the disaster site.


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A senior law enforcement official said that a firefighter working at ground zero came across ''The Thinker'' sometime late last year, and that there even exists a photograph of a firefighter posing next to the small statue. But when city investigators later questioned the firefighter in the photograph, the official said, he claimed to have last seen the sculpture on Dec. 6, in a temporary headquarters that the Fire Department was operating near the disaster site.

Deputy Fire Commissioner Francis X. Gribbon confirmed that investigators have questioned firefighters about ''The Thinker,'' but he would not elaborate. ''The department is aware of this investigation and is cooperating with those conducting it,'' he said.

A spokesman at Cantor Fitzgerald who declined to be identified said that the company planned to use the remnants of its Rodin collection to create ''an appropriate memorial to lost friends and colleagues.'' Meanwhile, the hunt continues for a small bronze statue of a man contemplating the meaning of it all.

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