Once upon a time I frequented the vaults of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, where I had the pleasure of handling manuscripts with gold- and jewel-bedecked bindings and magnificent illustrations and calligraphy. Shelved cheek by jowl with them are their ugly siblings: scribbled copies of obscure medieval tracts and treatises. The Beinecke staff and humble Ph.D. candidates (me, for example) laboriously identified as many of these texts as possible and meticulously listed them in the Library's catalogue. Occasionally a scholar would publish one of them, with great fanfare, as a newly discovered text. "We knew it was there all the time," the staff would sniff. And of course they did know, but the knowledge wasn't easily accessible to outsiders until someone published an article on it.
I thought of that last month when insatiable curiosity impelled me on a quest for “missing” sculptures. While I was visiting an exhibition of Paul Manship's works at the Gerald Peters Gallery, the Gallery's director asked if I knew the fate of four large reliefs by Manship that once adorned the New York Coliseum. The Coliseum was demolished in 2000 to make way for the Time Warner Center. Surely the city hadn't destroyed works by one of the 20th century's best-known American sculptors, whose Prometheus hovers over Rockefeller Center's skating rink? Someone - the equivalent of those librarians at the Beinecke - must know what had happened to the Manship reliefs. But who?
My first resort, as always, was the Smithsonian American Art Institution's online catalogue of sculpture (under "Smithsonian American Art Museum Research Databases," click "Search Art Inventories"). Alas, SIRIS entry IAS 87870253 listed Manship’s Coliseum reliefs but gave no indication of where they had wandered off to after the Coliseum's demolition. SIRIS was compiled in the 1990s, and if no one submits revised information, SIRIS doesn't have it.
On a previous research quest I'd been given the name of Jonathan Kuhn, director of Art and Antiquities at the New York City Parks Department. He promptly and courteously told me that he had no record of the Manship reliefs, since the Coliseum wasn't within Parks Department jurisdiction. He did recall seeing articles about the reliefs when the Coliseum was torn down, and suggested that as possible lead.
Sure enough, in an article of 9/24/1999 David Dunlap informed New York Times readers that early one morning he had seen the ten-foot-square, 1,500-pound reliefs being loaded onto a flatbed truck. He was told they were being taken to Connecticut for cleaning and repair, and then it would be “a matter of finding a new home that gives them good exposure.” After that, utter silence from the Times. Other New York newspapers seemed to have no articles on the reliefs at all. Had the reliefs vanished forever in the vastness of Connecticut? How could I find out?
Mr. Kuhn (what a helpful man!) sent a follow-up email. He'd discovered that the Coliseum was built and managed by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, later renamed MTA Bridges and Tunnels. The MTA has an archivist whose name and number Mr. Kuhn supplied. I called her, and voila! She knew exactly where the reliefs were. She had, of course, known all along.
Ironically, they are in plain sight in a very frequented location, on Battery Place just west of Bowling Green and across from Battery Park. Three of the four are installed on the facade of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel building: the seals of the State of New York, the City of New York, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. For lack of space on the facade, the seal of the United States is stored inside the building. Although I visited Battery Park several times in the past month while preparing what eventually turned into From Portraits to Puddles: New York City Memorials from the Civil War to the World Trade Center (Reflecting Absence), I never noticed the reliefs on the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel building.
And here they are. If you magnify the separate images, you can see that Manship’s characteristic style is evident even on pieces whose subjects were rigorously defined.