Salvaged artifact auction in NYC includes cathedral gates

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

NEW YORK (AP) — Collectors, designers and developers looking for their next statement piece will get a chance to find one at a large auction of salvaged historical artifacts.

Urban Archaeology, a former salvage company that years ago switched to manufacturing tile, lighting and bathroom accessories based on iconic designs, is auctioning off approximately 6,000 artifacts March 27-28.

Walking into the company's factory in lower Manhattan is akin to walking inside a time capsule.

Decorative and architectural objects, from complete staircase railings that once adorned an Art Deco Paris mecca to wrought-iron gates from St. Patrick's Cathedral, crowd the vast ground floor of the six-story Tribeca building.

"I really think the world should see some of it. The things should be in public spaces," said company founder Gil Shapiro, who has collected artifacts from such institutions as the old hotel Astor, The Plaza and Yale University Library. His salvage collecting bug began as a teenager. Now 70, Shapiro said he's consolidating his warehouse and factory into one building.

There's a story behind nearly every piece. Like the gargantuan chandelier with 24 hand-blown glass globes.

Shapiro acquired the fixture from a dealer in 1985 based on a Polaroid that gave no clue to its massive scale. Citicorp Center — now called Citigroup Center — had purchased it only to discover it would not fit.

"It's almost like 'Alice in Wonderland,'" added Shapiro. "It's about 10 feet in diameter and needs a 26-foot ceiling." The presale estimate is $60,000 to $80,000.

His clients have included Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Ralph Lauren, Martha Stewart and Richard Gere. Some previous artifacts have made their way to movie sets.

"Almost all of the props in 'The Money Pit' with Tom Hanks came from us," Shapiro said. "They rented five bathtubs and blew up one."

In the 1980s, Shapiro also bought nearly all the decorative elements of the Bon Marche department store in Paris — an Art Deco gem featuring designs by Edgar Brandt and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann.

There are many stars in the sale, but the brass wrought-iron railings of the store's central staircase shine brightest. Comprised of 14 rails, two newel posts and two connectors, they're estimated to bring $80,000 to $120,000. If they don't meet the minimum reserve, the pieces will be sold separately.

And as if one staircase wasn't unusual enough, the auction includes the balustrades of another, sweeping double grand staircase that once adorned a Southampton mansion. They're the work of Samuel Yellin, an early 20th-century Philadelphia metalworker whose projects included the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Washington National Cathedral. The staircase's delicate curved wrought-iron railings feature whimsical flora and fauna designs. If sold complete, it could fetch up to $120,000.

Michael Devonshire, a conservator at JHPA Inc., an architectural firm specializing in historic preservation work, said potential buyers could include museums or someone interested in a unique conversation piece.

"There's the sadness that the artifacts aren't in the original buildings," he said. "But then there's a gratification knowing that these pieces are still alive and circulating so they could be enjoyed by more people."

Shapiro was in junior high when he bid $100 on the contents of an old-fashioned drug store complete with an ice cream parlor in his Brooklyn neighborhood. His weekly allowance was $3 so he sold his brother's bedroom furniture to the building superintendent while his brother was at work. To pay for the delivery truck, he sold his family's living room furniture.

His parents sent him to a mental health professional — but he was hooked. In 1978, he opened Urban Archaeology.

Other important historical objects in the sale include the original cast-iron fountain statues of a merman and mermaid from the Place de la Concorde in Paris, which were replaced with replicas during an early 20th-century renovation. They're expected to bring up to $150,000 each; Shapiro hopes they will return to Paris.

Also significant are the 15-foot Baptistry Gates from St. Patrick's Cathedral designed by Kenneth Lynch, a metalsmith whose other work included the stainless-steel eagles crowning the Chrysler Building.

But not all the stuff in the sale is huge. There's an array of mid-century modern lamps, display cases and other furniture that once adorned hotels, department stores and transportation depots.