Selling Lady Liberty: trinkets, treasures

Flanked by green Statue of Liberty boxer shorts ($15) and the ubiquitous foam crowns ($3.25), store owner C.J. Krieger exclaims: ``Three weeks ago, people were selective. Now there's nothing that isn't moving.'' Indeed, the tiny Statue of Liberty Gallery in Greenwich Village (gallery is loosely defined in this case) is flush with souvenir sharks. Even the $189 limited-edition 12-inch statue replicas, made from ground-up metal scraps from the statue and held together by a polymer, are selling.

On Fifth Avenue, shoppers' appetites for Liberty memorabilia are just as voracious. The hot item, says a Tiffany & Co. official, is a $95 hand-painted rendition of Miss Liberty on a Battersea enamel box. A musical version sells for $350.

``We can't keep them in stock. A shipment of several hundred came in last week and they were gone in one day,'' she says.

The cash flow may just be getting started. The city is preparing for what it hopes will be a deluge of not-so-huddled masses yearning to spend freely.

Some 10 million people are expected to descend on restaurants, hotels, and stores for the four days of Liberty festivities centered on Independence Day.

City economists say that when some 6 to 7 million showed up for the bicentennial sailing ship celebration in 1976, they spent nearly $300 million. This time, the city could take in as much as $500 million.

But for some, the bonanza is slow in coming. Cruise operators and private party brokers have been discounting tickets in recent weeks. They say the heavy advance media coverage has given the false impression that all seats are booked.

``We were shocked we weren't sold out three to six months ago,'' says Joanne Jackson of Viewpoint International. The company is host for more than half a dozen events, from parties at the World Trade Center's Windows on the World ($175 per person) to harborside grandstand seats ($65, with snack).

Ms. Jackson says the company will probably break even. As of Tuesday, she said, there was still ``30 to 35 percent availability'' out of 17,000 tickets and added gamely: ``Come on out!''

Inevitably, this huge gala and the accompanying sales hype have provoked criticism about the commercialization of an icon of freedom, patriotism, and Franco-American friendship.

Jackson responds by noting that Viewpoint donated 1,700 tickets to veterans, the disabled, and the elderly. Retailer Krieger is sensitive to the criticism, noting that his grandparents came from Russia, Italy, Hungary, and Romania.

``Yes, you've got the gadgets, souvenirs, and trinkets. But behind everything is the lady -- a shared understanding of liberty. And if it weren't for the hype, the lady wouldn't be.''

Perhaps not. Sculptor Fr'ed'eric Auguste Bartholdi didn't shy away from free enterprise when it came to financing the statue's construction.

A current exhibit of Bartholdi's work at the New York Public Library details such fund-raising ventures as a fete at the Paris Opera in 1876, a lottery with monetary prizes, and Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper campaign, which pulled in $100,000 from the ``working class.''

Commercialization is ``very much in the spirit of Bartholdi,'' says June Hargrove, curator of the library exhibit and an associate professor of art history at the University of Maryland.

``His attitude was that all publicity is good. He exploited it very cleverly -- not to his own profit but to complete the monument.''

In fact, the precedent for hawking the thousands of souvenir Liberty statues was set by Bartholdi.

In designing the statue, he made numerous models and ``recognized the possibilities of small-scale reproductions of the statue as a source of income,'' as the exhibition catalog puts it.

Bartholdi was not a great artist, says Dr. Hargrove, just a ``good, standard academic sculptor.''

As for the Liberty memorabilia being sold, Leslie Weckstein of Christie's says, ``It's definitely not all schlock. But I can't anticipate the market 50 or 100 years from now.''

The early casts of Bartholdi models and the models themselves are fetching sizable sums these days.

Last year, the Coca-Cola Company paid $121,000 for a four-foot-high metal model sold by Christie's. Philip Morris picked up one at Sotheby's for $148,000.

Mad magazine publisher William M. Gaines, who has perhaps the largest private collection of Liberty models, has purchased six from Christie's in the last two years for prices ranging from $935 to $104,500.

Corporate sponsors and licensees of the restoration program have chipped in millions to carry the ``official sponsor'' logo on products and in ads. But despite the criticism of such practices, it isn't a new role.

The statue has been a pitchman's tool ever since its completion. Miss Liberty sold everything from spools of thread to kerosene lamps in the late 1800s.

The difference, art historians say, is that early on the statue was little more than an imposing and recognizable sculpture in New York Harbor. Over the decades, however, as the tide of immigrants to America swelled, the statue's potency as a symbol of American freedom slowly grew.

But it wasn't until the image was used to sell ``Liberty'' bonds in World War I that the statue began to acquire the aura of patriotism it now holds.

Since what it represents is now ``a synthesis of so many aspects of America, from liberty to enlightenment, it leaves it open to a vast range of interpretations,'' Hargrove says. ``And that makes it ideal for commercialization and political commentary.''

Or as a young man put it in less academic terms as he stood next to a six-foot-high plastic replica outside the Statue of Liberty Gallery this week:

``People buy these things because they are second-, third-, and fourth-generation Americans. They want to express how proud they are to have made it.''

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