The Selling of a Monument (Dennis Aubrey)


Near Bordeaux is the famous wine village of Saint Emilion, classified with its vineyards as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2011, something extraordinary happened here. The town was in debt to the tune of €6 million and decided that it could not afford the upkeep on its patrimony. Without public discussion, the mayor, Bernard Lauret, sold the 14th Century Cordeliers cloister to a private citizen, a local businessman who had designs on making Cremant de Bordeaux on the property.

The cloister had recently undergone a publicly funded €570,000 restoration and was sold for €750,000, a figure which appears to significantly undervalue the property.

It is clear that there was a genuine financial problem – the regional accounting office determined that Saint Emilion had a debt load four times greater than the average French town of the same size despite tax revenues 73 per cent higher. But the office also determined that bad financial management was at least part of the reason for the debt.

The Mayor and the town council defended the measure by saying that the funds were needed to maintain the rest of the town’s patrimonial structures, not to pay down the large debt. The townspeople were outraged by the deal, but were too late to stop the transaction from going through.

14th century Cordeliers cloisters in Saint Emilion (Gironde)  Notafish/wikicommons

14th century Cordeliers cloisters in Saint Emilion (Gironde) Notafish/wikicommons

France has a great deal of experience in privatization, having sold off so many of its great monuments during the French Revolution. The results were disastrous; the Abbey of Cluny, the centerpiece of French monastic architecture in the Middle Ages, was almost completely obliterated by a Dijon businessman who used explosives to topple the complex so that he could sell off the stone. Prosper Lorain in his Histoire de l’abbaye de Cluny describes how Napoleon, on his way to Milan to be crowned King of Italy in 1805, passed through Burgundy. A citizen of Macon begged him to visit Cluny, remonstrating “You have allowed the sale and destruction of your great and beautiful church.” Napoleon replied brusquely, “You are the Vandals. I will not visit Cluny.”

Drawing of the Abbaye de Cluny, Georg Dehio/Gustav von Bezold: Kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes. Stuttgart: Verlag der Cotta'schen Buchhandlung 1887-1901, Plate No. 212

Drawing of the Abbaye de Cluny, Georg Dehio/Gustav von Bezold: Kirchliche Baukunst des Abendlandes. Stuttgart: Verlag der Cotta’schen Buchhandlung 1887-1901, Plate No. 212

The abbey was used as a stone quarry until 1813. This example, among too many others to enumerate, demonstrate the folly of privatization, which we might postulate equates to destruction.

The French recognized the importance of their heritage and in 1834, the writer Prosper Mérimée was appointed the first inspector-general of historical monuments, a fortuitous choice. A man of learning and sophistication, he had a deep appreciation for the beauty and historical significance of the monuments in this care. Under his leadership, France took the first steps to protect its patrimony on a national scale.

But more destruction occurred in the years that followed. In 1906, the American sculptor George Grey Barnard was in Europe while he worked on a commission for the Pennsylvania Capitol building. Exploring the countryside by donkey cart, he came upon the remains of monasteries and churches abandoned or damaged during the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. Barnard haggled with local owners and was soon exporting antiquities to rich Americans, among them John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

“I chanced to take up this work,” Barnard remarked, “at a time when France was so interested in modernity that she had forgotten her glorious past.”

A Milwaukee Journal article from October 21, 1979 states, “More dealer and entrepreneur than scholar, the enthusiastic Barnard ranged widely looking for treasures. France’s indifference to the value of its artistic heritage, coupled with the lack of export controls, made it possible for Barnard to ship antiquities of incalculable value to clients overseas before corrective legislation was passed. The French government finally passed a law in 1913 to stop the export of their cultural heritage.”

Two days before the law took effect Barnard sent a shipload of materials and artifacts to New York.

George Grey Barnard (May 24, 1863 – April 24, 1938)   Photo by Carl Van Vechten

George Grey Barnard (May 24, 1863 – April 24, 1938) Photo by Carl Van Vechten

The bulk of his personal collection, which he expanded to include substantial architectural elements including cloisters and portals, became the basis of the Cloisters Museum collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Perched on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, the Cloisters is a superb home for the transplanted walkways of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, Saint Martin-de-Canigou, and from other sites in southern France. Visitors to the City can enjoy these marvels of the Middle Ages for themselves.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Martin du Canigou, Casteil (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But it is a different thing to go to France and visit the original sites of these cloisters. We see fragments instead of ensembles, fragments of the buildings that once were the glory of medieval France.

The half cloister, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey

The half cloister, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

It is like going to the ancient city of Pergamum in Turkey, knowing that the magnificent Altar of Pergamum resides in Berlin instead of in its home in Turkey from whence it was removed.

Altar of Pergamum, Berlin.  © Raimond Spekking / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Altar of Pergamon, Berlin. © Raimond Spekking / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The British Museum in London contains the so-called Elgin Marbles, the sculpted frieze from the Parthenon in Athens. The agents of Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, spent almost ten years cutting out the frieze and sending it back to England.

Byron decried the defacement of the Parthenon in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage;

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Elgin Marbles, British Museum (London)  Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 December 2004 {{cc-by-sa-2.0}} (via Wikimedia Commons)

Elgin Marbles, British Museum (London) Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 December 2004 {{cc-by-sa-2.0}} (via Wikimedia Commons)

Those who defend the removal of these treasures cite the fact that they were found abandoned and deteriorating and that only the protection of a more civilized setting would preserve them for posterity. That may be so, but were the Marbles and the Altar of Pergamum any more protected in London and Berlin? Both were severely threatened in the Second World War as Berlin and London were devastated in bombing and battle. The English protected the frieze by placing it in an unused section of the Underground as a defense from the German bombing. The Pergamon Museum was badly damaged by air raids towards the end of WWII, while segments of the Altar, which had been stored for safekeeping in a Berlin bunker, were seized by the Red Army and taken back to the Soviet Union. They weren’t returned until 1959.

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

Cloister, Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxa, Codalet (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

The controversial issues of artistic salvage and reparations cannot be decided by a simple right or wrong because the issues are too dense, the history too complex, and the national laws too convoluted. My position is predicated on a simple question. If, in the future, the United States suffered complete economic collapse, would I approve the sale of the Lincoln Monument to a private individual to recover some funds, or to allow it to be dismantled stone by stone and transported to another country for display in a museum? This is the question faced by those countries whose monuments have been removed, and I am not surprised that their answer is a resounding negative.

36 responses to “The Selling of a Monument (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Heart-rending tales, Dennis. Perhaps someday we will again have “A man of learning and sophistication” who will prevent the sale of history and legacy, in any country. For now, I fear that people of learning and sophistication are not sought out for their wisdom and counsel, but those in power listen instead to the voice of the almighty currency.

      • I was hoping to hear something like that. I can see where private buyers could help preserve sites, especially with patrimonies emptying the bank accounts, but there’s always the question of whether the next owner would feel obligated to follow suit.

  2. like the private buyer of the Abbaye at Hambye, who spent a lifetime conserving and in part restoring what had been lost.

    Bâtiments de France is a relatively recent organisation to protect the patrimony – too little, too late . The Burrell Collection in Glasgow contains architectural treasures scavenged throughout the world. I could go on – you have opened my floodgates of indignation! However, at least England’s National Trust does fabulous work there.now, with English Heritage backing up.

    • Viv, there has been some wonderful work done by private owners – the Cistercian Abbaye of Fontenay in Burgundy is a spectacular example. We know of a lovely project at the Prieuré Saint-Estève de Monastir-del-Camp in Passa in the Pyrénées-Orientales. The owners have used their own funds to restore the cloister and the church was being restored when we were there in 2008. But the balance weighs against privatization. The French government organization Patrimoine de France does a magnificent job but there is so much to do and funds are becoming more difficult to obtain. We are lucky to have what we do.

  3. Dennis, Having grown up in Miami, I was always intrigued with a tourist attraction known as the Ancient Spanish Monastery. My family never went, but much later I would learn that it was noneother than the monastery and cloisters, St. Bernard de Clairvaux, originally built in the town of Sacramenia in Segovia, Spain, in the 12th century but dismantled in the 20th century and shipped to New York in the United States. It was eventually reassembled in North Miami Beach, Florida, where it is now an Episcopal church and tourist attraction. It is one of the oldest buildings in the Western Hemisphere. William Randolph Hurst was the original importer of the building. Although still very beautiful, I always have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I visit there.

    • Vann, I had no idea of this story, which is amazing. I just looked it up quickly and found the website. Here is some interesting information:

      “Soon after the shipment arrived, Hearst’s financial problems forced most of his collection to be sold at auction. The massive crates remained in a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, for 26 years. One year after Hearst’s’ death in 1952, they were purchased by two entrepreneurs for use as a tourist attraction. It took 19 months and the equivalent of nearly $20 million dollars (in today’s currency) to put the Monastery back together. In 1953 Time magazine called it “the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history.”

      This shows that no matter how good the intentions, we don’t know what will happen. It turned out well, in 1964 Colonel Robert Pentland, Jr, purchased the ensemble and gave it to the Bishop of Florida.

      Thanks for this, Vann.

  4. The Pergamon reliefs were buried in the later walls of the city and no longer at the original site or in a position to be viewed. Apparently the stones were being systematically dug out and taken to lime kiln ovens and thereby destroyed. This is at least the common account given that has also made its way into the German Wiki,
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Humann

    • John, I have heard this as well, just as it was a justification for the Elgin Marbles. Alexander Conze, director of sculpture at the Berlin royals museums, stated “We are not insensitive to what it means to remove the remnants of a great monument from their original location and bring them to a place where we can never again provide the lighting and environment in which they were created and in which they once conveyed their full effect.” But it was possible (and even proposed) to do an in situ excavation which would have prevented the destruction while keeping the altar in Pergamum.

      Again, from the Wikipedia page, (The Prussian Minister of Culture in a letter to the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, quoted as in Max Kunze, Volker Kästner: Antikensammlung II. Der Altar von Pergamon. Hellenistische und römische Architektur. Henschelverlag, 2nd edition, Berlin 1990, ISBN 3-362-00436-9, p. 28 (translated).) “It is very important for the museums’ collections, which are so far very deficient in Greek originals […] to now gain possession of a Greek work of art of a scope which, more or less, is of a rank close to or equal to the sculptures from Attica and Asia Minor in the British Museum.”

      This is simply cultural colonialism as practiced by all the great European powers in the 19th Century.

  5. The English sometimes have distant memories of one Thomas Cromwell and his boss Harry. Pace your note on Cluny, I’d never thought to call their activities with architectural ecclesiastical heritage ‘privatisation’.

    • John, the French government sold the Abbaye to a private citizen, so I guess that’s why. So many other places were turned into granges, warehouses, military barracks, prisons and the like. The inevitable result was destruction and sometimes demolition. And yes, Cromwell and the suppression of the monasteries.

  6. a difficult question indeed; do we burden the taxpayer with this or the need to better our schools, hospitals and social safety nets, or do we charge higher admissions and quite possibly prevent many opportunity to see and learn. The cost of upkeep must come from somewhere, but where is the question. During the much of the past it was wealthy patrons of the church and arts that paid for these costs, is this perhaps what we are destined to again? A difficult question we as a society must ponder.
    thanks for bringing us this discussion.

    • Janice, tough question. One way or another, the citizens need to pay for the upkeep of the monuments. In France, the state Patrimoine de France pays a portion of the upkeep and half of the approved restoration. But the commune, who usually owns the site, is responsible for the rest. We know of a church in the Haute-Loire in Peyrusse that has a beautiful church, but there are only 177 inhabitants. What a responsibility!

  7. The destruction of beauty through neglect or by will is always a sad thing. Preservation, even for selfish reasons, seems like a good thing to me, but perhaps I am too simple in my thinking.

  8. Dennis,
    Your phenomenal posting got me to thinking how very powerful and beautiful the ‘new’ Acropolis Museum is. Along the length of the frieze that used to adorn the Parthenon – one that depicts a festival to the goddess Athena – are elegant, yet upsetting, blank spaces adorned only with small signs that depict the name of the museum currently holding the missing sections. It’s an eloquent denunciation of this violation. In reading up on this subject, I have just learned that the act of cultural vandalism is known as “Elginism”.

  9. I’ve always found it amazing that it was Lord Elgin’s son (James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardineo – I had to check wiki again just to make sure I hadn’t imagined the entire connection) who ordered the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. What a family legacy of cultural vandalism! ‘Elginism’ is indeed a grand term.

  10. The actions of the St. Emilion council come as no surprise to me…I lived in France for over twenty years and it was amazing how much took place behind closed doors….
    In my last commune the council decided to sell the chemins ruraux to the farmers whose land abutted them…totally illegal, but the battle to get them back in public hands is still draggng on years afterwards while the hedges have been obliterated.
    I know it’s not on the scale of historical buildings…but is part of local heritage and goes unchecked.

    • It is part of that local heritage and we have seen similar things in the past. It is amazing that there is not more abuse, considering how difficult it can be for the local communes to pay for the upkeep and restoration of the monuments.

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  13. Dennis – I wish I’d seen this post when you originally put it up as I recently posted about the Cloisters myself. Having been to Athens and Pergamon, I agree that the “relocation” of these works is quite sad. However separated they are from their original context, at least these pieces are on display. I have to draw a very sharp line when it comes to private collections and the removal of art from public view. Recently I attended a concert at a private university in a building that was regularly only open to faculty and students. I was shocked to find incredible medieval artifacts inside including an entire, ornate Gothic cathedral portal from Germany. I asked if I could come back and look at the art more closely and for longer but was told I would not be allowed to do so. Certainly I could try to push the issue through the appropriate offices to gain access, but my point is that people walk by this academic building all the time and have no idea what is on display inside nor would they have any opportunity to do so. What is a worse crime: relocating a work of art or hiding a work of art?

    The export of priceless artifacts and architecture is a fact of our past and obviously something we have learned from and do not condone today. Not every Egyptian marble, Dutch oil painting or Chinese vase that was bought by an enterprising person from a desperate seller can be returned, but at least many of these items remain accessible to the public.

    Personally I like the Italian model that has emerged in the last few years as the government can no longer support conservation and preservation projects. Realizing that its history is one of its greatest assets, several Italian corporations have sponsored restoration projects. I’ll happily look at Ferrari ads on the front entrance of the site if it means Pompeii gets some much needed conservation!

  14. I return to this fascinating post with a little question – we will be wandering in Roussilon in early September, S michel de Cuxa and S Martin du Canigou on the itinerary… are all your photos (on other posts too) of these places taken in situ, or will I find everything gone to NY? Many thanks for your help.

    • John, we will also be in the area in September, most likely the middle of the month. Saint Michel-de-Cuxa is in good shape, but only half of the cloister is still on site, the other half in New York. You can see that in the post here. Saint Martin-du-Canigou is in spectacular shape after the restoration years ago, and most of the cloister is original (at least the ground level). It used to be a two-level cloister. The south side of the cloister was built of the recovered remnants of the second level and faces out to the mountains. Keep in touch with us, John, about this trip, and we’ll be glad to help you in any way you can. I’m sure that you will get more wonderful shots and you can do a post for us!

  15. Dennis: As I have read through all the comments on this post I am of two minds. I have visited some of the relics that have been removed to museums and some that are still in place with little funding available to preserve them for the future. I guess I am of mixed feelings. It is wonderful to see them in place, but how many of our children and grandchildren will be able to do this. To see them destroyed in place due to lack of care and funding may be a greater disservice to humanity than to have some of them moved to a safer place.

    • Kalli, it is such a pleasure to see the Cloisters Museum – Barnard’s dream made a wonderful reality and we in the USA are lucky to have such a thing. However, when you go to the sites in France, it physically hurts to see the missing areas. One thing that we must recognize is that at the period of time when many of these monuments were removed, they were not cared for in their original locations – in fact many had been dismantled. Elgin’s supporters remark that many of the pieces were scheduled to go the lime kiln and would have been destroyed. So it is a very complicated situation.

  16. Your paper is sympathic, but I fear there is some misunderstandings. Not about St.-Emilion, of course, but about thé nationalization of Church properties and its consequencies du ring the Revolution. It is a huge matter to discuss ! I also feel you mistake about Barnard´s intentions and actions. In our website http://www.cuxa.org you can find ( in French) a Little story of the Cuxa cloister.

    • Olivier, thank you for this response. I understand some of the complexity of the nationalization that took place during the Revolution and did not mean to over-simplify. The point that I was making was that when a monument is placed in private hands, almost anything can be done. In the case of Cluny, the great church was reduced to rubble. And thank you for the link to the cuxa.org site, which I read as well.

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