This is the story of the two brave women who set out to the Big Apple in hopes of gathering plaster casts for the George Mason Collection in 2006. The following is the gripping tale of their dramatic adventure.
Neophytes with “Good Chi”
Written By: Lucy Miller and Anna Zacherl
Edited By: Stephanie LaSpada
We arrived at Bronx, New York, in the late afternoon of February 27, 2006. Our destination was an old warehouse overlooking the East River, the most recent location that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had stored their plaster cast collection. Most of the casts were created over a century ago, some never even reaching display status. There they sat, awaiting their new homes following the auction at Sotheby’s.
We were two women on a mission; hoping to attain more historic plaster casts to add to the existing collection of George Mason University.
On a bright and blustery early spring day in New York City, we entered the ninth floor of the Bronx warehouse. We found a filmy window-lined space, which prior accounts could not have prepared us for. It was a wild sight. Out of the dim light emerged shadowy images of disembodied figures and architectural ruins. Everywhere, plaster casts of dusty and soot-covered reliefs, statuary, portrait heads, and decorative, architectural fragments filled the rows of shelves and floor space. Objects were haphazardly lumped together in lots on the shelves and floor. All the casts reflected a century’s worth of neglect, so as to become historic in their own right!
Shuffling through the aisles, we were excited by many of the pieces, yet our confidence was waning after seeing our bidding competition. Women in full-length minks darted around us, occasionally peering at us over their glasses, likely curious as to why two, jean-clad women shrieked with delight at every other casts! The word in their warehouse was that the majority of surveyors were antique and art dealers, interior decorators, and museum representatives.
The next day we did away with the jeans and put on the serious black attire in preparation for a day of bidding. Upon arriving we registered and received our paddles with smiles and encouraging wishes of, “Good Luh-uck!” We were all smiles. No pretenses were made to hide the fact that we were students, representing our University, and overwhelmed to be there!
Sharply at 10:15 AM a tall, handsome man appeared at the podium. He swiftly announced the Sotheby’s strict and lengthy rules, regulations, terms of sale, and cast pick-ups at the Bronx warehouse. The CRACK went the gavel, and away we went! Each item appeared on the screen above the front telephone-bidding desk. The numbers quickly shot up into the thousands. We turned towards one another with wide eyes, realizing that we were in over our heads. Then all of the sudden an opportunity arose to bid on an item that went below the $100 starting price. Subsequently, down it went to $50. We immediately shot up our paddle. CRACK! “Sold – to the lady in the back row!” On the screen, the cast appeared to be an architectural piece in decent shape. Why did we not have a challenger? And why did the auctioneer seem to give us a special smile? It was then that we realized the dimensions of the piece were slightly over 6ft by 6ft. However, that $50 bid gave us the confidence to try again.
In the next bidding episode we acquired a few more treasures. One piece in particular became close to our hearts. Due to its awkward measurements and fragile state it did not have many bidders. Our attachment to this piece though secured us the bid, but took away the entire budget we had, and more!
Long after our money ran out, we continued to watch the scene unfold before our eyes. The subtle nuances between bidders were end entertainment for us. A couple of bidders used domineering demeanor, but only came in towards the bitter end. One telephone bidder rarely stopped, repetitively squashing competitors that demonstrated deep pockets.
We realized that consistently some would begin the bidding war by giving a very low price. For just plain fun we planned to do that with the bid of Parthenon Frieze Blocks. We thought, “Sure, why not? Let’s play with the sharks. We can start at $100 because we know where it’s actually going!” When the blocks appeared on screen, we raised our paddle to start the beginning and promptly dropped it on the seat, as if to say, “Of course we don’t have a chance!” The sharks along the back wall were heard chuckling. We watched in amazement as the bid vigorously shot up to $25,000. That price was only topped by a lion relief from the French Renaissance, which was sold for $42,500.
Exiting the auction room, we were handed instant sale results for all items sold in the auction: 177 plaster cast were sold for over half a million dollars. Upon leaving we were flying high because we had participated in an auction at one of the premier auction houses in the world! We ventured over to Chinatown and met a friend for lunch. After telling our story of the adventures at the auction, she simply smiled and said, “You have good chi.”
About two weeks later we returned to New York City to pick up our treasures. We acquired a rental truck and drove straight to the warehouse. Arriving earlier than our hired movers, we began to wrap the casts in copious amounts of bubble wrap and duct tape. Finally our movers arrived and the pieces began to be transferred to the truck.
During the finagling, we began to converse with a kind young man named Michael. Reading about the auction, he said he thought it would be fun to participate, and perhaps end up with something that could serve as a conversational piece in his apartment. When we informed him that using a familiar household cleaner on the cast would destroy the piece, he asked for some cleaning advice and how we were so informed. We explained the Plaster Casts Project and upon hearing this he donated two of his pieces to us!
At one point the movers were loading the mammoth $50 bargain into the truck, but quickly realized the piece was larger than the truck. We raced down the block to exchange trucks, while the movers waited for us. Before driving away in our new and larger truck, the manager gave us an, “Oh, by the way…”, informing us that the only thing wrong was the inside driver’s door handle was missing. This meant the driver had to roll the window down in order to open the door. No big deal. We shot back to the warehouse and once again began to load the truck. At one time the truck had to be moved an inch, we were unable to enter it without many people pulling the door open. Then to start the engine, we had to pull the already loose front dash forward and pull the starter out! No big deal. Once all the pieces were successfully loaded we began our trek back to Fairfax, Virginia.
Quickly after starting on our drive to housing for the night, we learned there were some more serious problems with the truck. The right rear brake light flickered and when the headlights were turned on the back taillights did not work. We came up with a daytime driving plan to avoid these issues: one of us would drive in a car and maintain close proximity to the truck with their hazard lights on.
The next morning we began to make our way back home, and was quickly stopped by an accident backup on the Long Island Expressway. After some time we discovered the brake lights were not working on the truck, so we quickly stopped off and had the problem fixed.
By early afternoon we were back on the highway and still in traffic. Then after a few hours had gone by the brake lights, turn signals, and headlights were no longer working. We pulled off on the first exit, which was conveniently for the Bronx, right next to where the truck rental store was. After haggling for over an hour the truck company agreed to send a mechanic to help us, but he too had to fight through the New York City traffic. Meanwhile two New York firefighters came up to us and warned us that we did not want to be in this section of the Bronx at sundown. Fortunately our savior the truck mechanic arrived, informing us that while the previous mechanic had claimed they had fixed it, in fact they had only jerry-rigged the wires. He also told us the truck should have never left the lot in its conditions. No big deal.
Soon we were on our way back to Fairfax, again, but for the last time. The trip was quite uneventful on the way home, with the exception of being cautiously followed by State Troopers through each state we passed.
Upon arriving back to Fairfax we met an unloading crew that was compiled of a few gracious George Mason workers, Nick, our restorer, and our mentor and project manager Dr. Carol Mattusch. The pieces were quickly and uneventfully unloaded into a storage room on campus.
In its entirety, the experience was a crash course education like none other, and for that, we are truly grateful to all whose support allowed it to happen. Our unrelenting determination to acquire additional plaster casts for George Mason University, was only propelled by involving ourselves in the entire process. Our hope is for George Mason University to recognize its entire collection in the same manner that The Metropolitan Museum of Art began carrying out its mission statement from their original constitution: “[...] Written in 1870. [It] gave as a primary objective the formation of ‘a more or less complete collection of objects illustrative of the History of Art from the earliest beginnings to the present time.’” Upon the students’ diligent completion of research, cleaning, restoration, and installation of the works, George Mason University’s collection of plaster casts will exhibit art that endures the test of time, stimulating interest in History and Art History.