Rescuing the Lost Art of 9/11: How 9/11 spawned one of the most unusual art preservation efforts of the modern era
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 Shadesfrom 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.”
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.”
From there, it profiles the Salvage Art Institute, a group well worth looking up if you’re not familiar.