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9/11 Art Lost and Created

Rescuing the Lost Art of 9/11

How 9/11 spawned one of the most unusual art preservation efforts of the modern era.


The Three Shades have been to hell and back.

In Dante Alighieri’s legendary Divine Comedy, the souls of the dead (or ‘shades’ in the original Italian) stand before the gates of the underworld, their presence a precursor to the warning inscribed below: “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” It’s these spectral harbingers that inspired Auguste Rodin’s eponymous The Three Shades, the massive sculpture Rodin worked on for 37 years until his death in 1917. Tortured and tormented, a trio of sentries stood atop The Gates of Hell, lamenting their damnation in the fire and brimstone.

Nearly 100 years later, a bronze cast of The Three Shades was plunged into another inferno. According to a report painstakingly assembled by the recently dissolved Heritage Emergency National Task Force, in the weeks and months after the World Trade Center collapsed during the September 11th terrorist attacks, the art world experienced a cataclysmic loss. Works by artists like Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, and Le Corbusier graced the walls of the Twin Towers, and were obliterated in the tragedy; a sprawling tapestry by Joan Miro that hung in the lobby of 2 World Trade Center was demolished when the building came down around it. Cantor Fitzgerald, the brokerage firm which lost some 650 employees that day, was home to a vast collection of Rodin’s works; from the artist’s drawings to the original Three Shades, which welcomed visitors to the firm’s lobby on the 105th floor of the North Tower. The task force estimated that a staggering $100 million in art from private collections, and an additional $10 million worth of public art was lost in the tragedy.

Some works of art did survive, though. The red steel sculpture which towered over the WTC courtyard, Alexander Calder’s Bent Propellor, emerged from the wreckage of the towers weeks later, though only 40 percent of the original sculpture was recovered. The Sphere, a 27-foot-high rotating bronze sculpture by German artist Fritz Koenig and one of the most recognizable works of public art at the World Trade Center, was relocated (without repairs) to Battery Park amid much controversy about what that move might signify. In June, the Port Authority finally voted to return the battered sphere to its rightful place as the sculptural heart of the World Trade Center.

Cantor Fitzgerald’s “museum in the sky” carries the strangest story of resilience and rebirth, as parts of these works began to turn up amid the rubble at Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills landfill in the months after the attacks. A bust of The Burghers of Calais was surfaced almost unscathed from the rubble. A cast of Rodin’s The Thinker was reportedly spotted and recovered before “mysteriously disappearing”—though there are photos of workers posing with it immediately after the discovery—and according to reports, it was never seen again. And most prominently, by a stroke of luck, it was former Fitzgerald curator Joan Vita Morotta who identified Three Shades from her home upstate while watching a news report on the Fresh Kills recovery efforts. “All of a sudden the camera shows a fuselage from one of the airplanes,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “And lying next to it is a portion of The Shades.”

(Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick did not respond to requests for comment placed through the company.)

But to say these works were fully saved would be premature. Like the 2,500 9/11 artifacts that lay forgotten in an airplane hangar at John F. Kennedy Airport until this July, they’d entered a strange limbo unique to the art world. Damaged beyond restoration, they were declared a “total loss,” a classification attributed to objects deemed devoid of any market value by insurers and resigned to warehouses and storage spaces while their legal owners are paid an indemnity—often destined to be forgotten and unappreciated as a quirk of the art insurance market. While fragments of Bent Propellor and Three Shades live on in the 9/11 Memorial and act as physical testaments to the world-historical trauma that was that fateful day, other artifacts have been subsumed under a strange new legal definition: “not art.”

In addition to the resounding change that transformed the nation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, an unusual window was opened into the strange afterlife of a different facet of humanity—the art that defined the spaces occupied and often cherished by the individuals lost in the tragedy. Understanding this phenomenon involves unearthing lost works not through layers of dirt and rubble, soil and ash, but through the tangle of money and contract, ownership and value. What does it mean when a work of art laden with meaning and significance is declared valueless? When did “art” become a legal standing and not an aesthetic one? And more importantly: Where do all these pieces actually go when the bond of physical ownership dissolves?

It’s up to the art world’s most unusual archaeologists to find out.

* * *

On a frigid morning in January, I met Elka Krajewska, the founder of the Salvage Art Institute, just a few miles north of the recently completed Freedom Tower. The Polish-born Krajewska is first and foremost an artist, but these days she’s also something of an art detective, an aesthetic gumshoe probing the strange, murky underworld of “salvage art,” those works declared a “total loss,” and written off by insurers. Remanded to back rooms and basements far from curious eyes, these objects “belong to an odd nether world, no longer alive in terms of the market, gallery or museum system, but often still relatively intact,” Krajewska explained at the SAI’s first “exhibition” in 2012. They are “zombie” art, the undead remnants of objects removed from the art market, and will continue to float aimlessly until they’re somehow liberated from their legal status as “not art.”

“Total loss” has been a feature of insurance markets, a judgment by insurance companies levied that declares an object—a car, a home, or a treasured possession—effectively devoid of value. In the case of artwork damaged by disasters like Superstorm Sandy or accidental damage (say, Steve Wynn putting his elbow through Pablo Picasso’s Le Rêve in 2006), insurers like AXA declare a total loss when the cost of restoration greatly exceeds the lost value of the piece. While insurers pay an indemnity to an artist for the full insured value of the piece—a necessity in the $63.8 billion art market, per the 2015 TEFAF Art Market Report—they then become accidental stewards of disfigured artwork. “Art that is a ‘total loss’ can still have value,” AXA’s Fischer told The Art Newspaper in 2012.

“If there’s not an agreement that we shouldn’t resell, the insurance company can do whatever it wants.” “Whatever it wants” often means donating certain pieces to artists like Krajewska, who warmly greets me at a nondescript brick building in Hell’s Kitchen to inspect a few of her treasures before she departs for an exhibition in Warsaw in January. Out of a small wooden box she presents a faded painted square from Helmut Dorner’s DCL, part of a legendary tryptych by the German artist. It’s beautiful, a textured smearing of oil on wood and canvas, and it’s undamaged; the only reason it was relegated to a box and hidden from view is the loss of its sister element (now a simple dyptych, the piece is no longer considered “complete”) in May 2009. Also present is a gunpowder and paper diptych by the visual artist Linda Bond, stained by water a few months before Dorner’s damage, and slumbering in a nearby storage locker. Against a back wall rests German artist Anton Henning’s Interior No. 391, a massive canvas covered in amorphous pastel shapes; torn in transit years ago, its inherent value stripped by an accident. And amid the boxes haphazardly piled throughout the storage units lives one of Jeff Koons’s now infamous Balloon Dogs, its shattered remains the centerpiece of the SAI’s 2012 Columbia University debut. Many of the pieces in Krajewska’s inventory are anonymous, their details shrouded mystery.

Krajewska rejects the idea that the SAI is a museum or gallery with an owned and loaned connection. Instead, she says, it’s more of a framework to identify, conceptualize, and present damaged works that, despite their aesthetic or historical value, may simply languish in warehouses and basements for years.

As a result, many of the treasures listed in the SAI’s eclectic inventory are not actually in Krajewska’s custody. One of SAI’s unusual policies is that the organization “claims stewardship over all total loss inventories as they are declared, wherever and whenever, with or without physical transfer,” making her “inventory” more of a map to the shadowy netherworld of lost art, a master catalogue of missing relics languishing in warehouses like Krajewska’s and prohibited from public display in conventional galleries and museums. The aforementioned Bent Propellor is in the SAI’s growing catalogue along with Koenig’s Sphere, as is a 1981 chromogenic print by MacArthur-winning photographer Cindy Sherman, known for producing one of the most expensive photos of all time, which was damaged when it was improperly packaged and the exposure abraded by broken glass.

From a heavy wooden crate swollen with packing materials comes La Moisson, an 1850 oil-on-canvas by Alexandre Dubuisson, a 19th century French painter known for his vivid, realistic portrayals of bucolic scenes from pastoral life. It’s stunningly bright in the cold concrete of the storage center, a vivid portrayal of a pastoral scene from the French countryside in remarkably good condition for a 160-year-old painting—minus the one-foot gash that cleaves the sheep and hay bales apart. “Go ahead, touch it,” says Krajewska. A fascinating note about this museum: Here, you can absolutely touch the art. After all, these pieces were all declared total losses—they’re not worth anything to the discerning and financially-minded eye

I place my palms on La Moisson, feeling vaguely taboo in the process. Surrounded by wooden boxes and pallets, I can’t help but imagine the closing sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a lowly government workman wheels the Ark of the Covenant between row after row of featureless boxes brimming with occult artifacts and raw power. Swimming in dust and fluorescent lighting, watching my breath catch in the gloom of the cold winter morning, it’s more like a visit to a crypt—or, more fittingly, a morgue.

* * *

Krajewska became entangled in the underworld of salvage art through the cataclysm of September 11th. Living on Staten Island with a clear view of downtown Manhattan, Krajewska learned of the phenomenon of salvage art through a discussion of Bent Propeller’s post-9/11 fate with an employee at AXA, one of the largest fine art insurers in the world, a company which estimated that it would pay out $17.2 million for the loss of three corporate collections on 9/11.

“Since that conversation, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of this ‘non-art,’” Krawjewska told me one evening several months earlier at her Tribeca studio, which doubles as SAI’s headquarters, a few miles from her vault of lost treasures. As an artist, she’d experienced the pain of “total loss” before, when a piece was damaged at a show in London, and was shocked by how little she knew about the fate of art in the hands of insurers. “I asked for proof of destruction, and they slashed my print,” she said. “It was just a bunch of materials together … but it was still mine!”

While SAI does inhabit a real, physical space in Manhattan, Krajewska wants it to be an intangible and even virtual catalogue of the world’s lost art—even if we can no longer see it. The expansive, porous nature of the SAI’s “inventory” allowed Krajewska to push the aesthetic boundaries of salvage art far beyond the physical refugees of world-historical crises like 9/11. Despite the catalyst for her newfound obsession. Krajewska became, as she explains to curious visitors to the SAI’s website, ”absorbed in trying to articulate my thoughts around these cadavers, the material that lives in limbo, in secret, as invisible, petrified ‘art-no-longer’ that is scrupulously databased and stored all around the country, all over the world perhaps.” The SAI, she explains, was to be more than just a collection of items bearing the scars of the 21st century’s first brush with abject despair. “This isn’t about September 11th,” she explained, “but understanding the changing face of art and value in an age dominated by price.”

Krajewska’s obsession quickly blossomed into something of a quest. Within two months of her fateful conversation with that AXA worker, she had conceptualized a first draft of a mission statement for the Salvage Art Institute, enlisting the help of acquaintances at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) to back the project. With the additional assistance of a Rockefeller cultural foundation grant, Krawjeska registered SAI as “the first public salvage art research space” in May 2010. But the real breakthrough came when Krajewska finally visited one of AXA’s sprawling art storage facilities in Brooklyn in November of that year. (AXA did not respond to requests for comment on their relationship with Krajewska or the contents of this facility).

“There was a sea of them behind walls,” she told me of her trip to AXA’s inventory; It was as though Indiana Jones’s archive of lost artifacts was real after all. With her nonprofit status at the SAI, Krajewska is on a mission to “uncover whole aspects of the world that are simply lost to systems that declare things art or not.”

Back in November 2012 Krajewska hit the mother lode: AXA legally gifted her a cache of “total loss” objects to place in SAI’s inventory for use as “educational materials” as part of the Columbia program. The pieces, including both Koons’s Balloon Dog and Dubuisson’s masterful pastoral painting, were featured in SAI’s inaugural show at Columbia University, No Longer Art. Krajewska plans on relocating the organization’s files to a new facility on a nearby houseboat, a deliberate echo of the transience of the SAI’s unusually inclusive “inventory.” After years of conceptualization and aspiration, the SAI finally started to take shape.

But how do you build a museum with art that doesn’t legally exist? Pieces of art deemed valueless are effectively prohibited from public display; that would imply that they are art, which they are legally not, and while the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 gives artists “final authority” over the fate of their art, the only recourse is often “donation, destruction or disposal.” AXA is of course the key to the entire project, as custodians of the salvage art in question. The company wasn’t interested in jeopardizing a claim by displaying the work, and there’s no clear standard for their handling after an indemnity is paid to the original owner—so there are lots of intricate and moving parts that can and do deter them from doing anything with the artifacts outside of keeping them in storage. Thanks to the tyranny of capitalism, AXA doesn’t deal in art—it deals in objects that, having lost all value, simply don’t matter.

Krajewska soon discovered that there’s no complete database of damaged art; with owners shrouded in anonymity thanks to insurance companies’ privacy agreements, an insurance claim effectively severs a work’s provenance, its chronology of chain of custody, leaving it disentangled from its own legacy of ownership. Dozens of items in her possession are anonymous and untitled, identified only by the simple SAI code that gives these pieces of non-art a new “identity” in the art world. Her inventory appropriately opens with Calder’s Bent Propellor, the ultimate piece of salvage art, though at the time it wasn’t legally in her possession.

“We’re not a museum, or a collection, or a gallery,” says Krajewska emphatically, and that ambiguous designation suits her just fine. “These pieces are transient.”

* * *

While Krajewska toils in her studio and at her storage facility in Tribeca, the world is getting a crash course in zombie art, with the 9/11 memorial acting as the epicenter of an entirely new breed of archaeological investigation into the art world’s most unusual phenomena. When Jan Ramirez joined the nascent 9/11 Museum as chief curator in 2006, she found that her purview extended far beyond the complicated claims governing works like Bent Propellor and The Three Shades, both of which were donated to the museum; these were almost simple in their resolution. The Port Authority rescinded its claim to the Calder (the Calder Foundation declined to comment), and Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick refused to claim insurance, donating the piece on long-term loan.

But the real purview of the 9/11 Memorial is grounded in the experience in salvage art, an experience which centers around artifacts that didn’t carry the intrinsic value they now possess before that fateful Monday in September, those mundane pieces of wreckage and ruin now solemn symbols of historical anguish. The museum is filled with wreckage that’s simultaneously priceless and valueless: a rack of bikes abandoned during the North Towers collapses; a piece of the legendary Ladder 3, which rushed to Ground Zero; a corkscrew that belonged to Lorraine Bay, a flight attendant on Flight 93. Among the 2,500 artifacts removed from a Queens warehouse in July included, “a 40,000 pound World Trade Center parking column, a 35,000 pound elevator motor and a massive TV antenna that once stood on the North Tower,” according to CBS.

“You encounter the physical destruction we woke up to on the morning of September 12th here, through damage and loss,” Ramirez told me one morning as we walk among the tourists who flood the subterranean memorial each day. “Everything we remember and experience here is done through encounters with recovered objects.”

Like Krajewska, Ramirez and her team are investigating a huge body of salvaged work and systematically piecing together their hidden claims, though the two are operating on vastly different scales. Ramirez is tasked with assessing, obtaining, and cataloging some 30,000 artifacts, but despite the wealth of resources at her disposal, she is navigating the same territory as Krajewska: How do you find, save, and display objects that are legally valueless? Thousands of tons of New York City Fire Department equipment—vests from first responders, tools that were property of the city, even an entire fire truck—are all under insurance claims, and fall under the designation of salvage art for the memorial. Even the “WTC Cross,” the giant chunk of steel infrastructure that loomed above first responders amid the wreckage, technically belonged to the Port Authority. Would the agency give up its insurance claim? The steel, which is used in memorials across the country, has to be approved by a federal judge—and the Port Authority waives its insurance claim every time a memorial opens in recognition of just how important these scraps are to millions of Americans.

I’m reminded of a remark made by AXA President and CEO Christiane Fischer during a discussion of Krajewska’s Columbia exhibition: “As an object, this work still represents part of our cultural history. Just imagine all the damaged art from Roman and Greek times. The Met would be completely empty.” The destruction of art is as old human civilization, but as Ben Lerner (who, it’s worth noting, included a fictionalized version of the SAI in his book 10:04) noted in 2013, “demolition, defacement, and debasement are not just fates artworks suffer at the hands of vandals; they’re often what those works are.” In order to create, you must destroy, and in surviving the tide of history, these works of art are forever molded by it, imbued with significance far beyond the aesthetic vision of their creators. Art can die, but meaning lives forever.

Towards the end of my tour with Ramirez, I encounter a scrap of The Three Shades; a twisted torso with a long, crooked gash running over the heart, and mixed in alongside the other detritus of the memorial’s salvaged inventory. “Had you created a special chapel for this art,” she says, “you run the risk of putting more value on the thing itself than as a stand-in for something greater.” It’s a sentiment embedded in Krajewska’s SAI mission statement: that the organization “seeks to maintain the zero-value of No Longer Art and recognizes its right to remain independent and divorced from the demands of future marketability.”

Far from the eyes of appraisers and dealers, The Three Shades sits obstinate, a reminder of its own artistic legacy and a testament to its historical context. And beyond the halls of the 9/11 Memorial, thousands of pieces of art slumber in warehouses and attics, awaiting their chance to bring meaning to a tragic world. To hell and back, Three Shades lives again as salvage art.

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