Amidst the furor over the causes of the fire that ravaged the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris back in April, and lingering questions about how the church should be rebuilt, one very important, but until now relatively under-reported, aspect of the conflagration got lost in the shuffle: burning lead.
Lead, as you probably know if you’ve ever had to do repair work on an historic house or an antique piece of furniture, is a highly toxic heavy metal, which for centuries has been used to make everything from paint and plumbing supplies, to finished goods such as statuary, crystal, and jewelry. As scientists became aware of the dangers it poses to the human body, its use was phased out in many industries. Studies have repeatedly shown that lead exposure is a significant risk factor for cognitive and physical developmental problems in unborn babies, infants, and small children, while even for otherwise healthy adults, lead exposure has been linked to the onset of mental illness, sterility, anemia, and even death.
In the case of Notre Dame de Paris, not only were the stained glass windows held together by strips of lead, but the entire roof and the central spire were sheathed in vast panels of lead. While in a solid, stable state, these lead components posed little or no threat to anyone, as we all know, both the roof and the spire of the Cathedral burned for hours until they collapsed. In the process, an enormous quantity of lead particulates was released into the atmosphere, settling on nearby buildings, sidewalks, and yes, people.
Now, a lawsuit filed this week by a French environmental activist group alleges that not enough was done at the time of the fire or afterward to warn people about the dangers of “hundreds of tons of lead” being released into the atmosphere around the burning Basilica, or to clean up the particulates themselves afterwards. In a disaster of this magnitude, it’s understandable that not everything that could have been done, was done at the time. Nevertheless, it’s rather disturbing to learn, among other things, that the chief of the Paris police force appears to have admitted that inadequate safety measures were taken both during the fire and subsequently. In fact, he has ordered the shutdown of the site until it can be made safer for workers to return.
I must confess, I hadn’t even thought of this issue until now, but knowing what I do about historic church architecture, it now strikes me as incredible that no one – at least, not in the coverage that I watched on television – took up the refrain of warning people that the burning lead roof of the Cathedral was a major health hazard for reasons beyond that of the fire itself. Perhaps it’s because everyone was in so much shock at what they were witnessing, that no one had the presence of mind to realize that inhaling or ingesting bits of lead is not good. Stay tuned for developments on this story.
Schiele for a Steal
Proving that, despite my recent ruminations to the contrary, sometimes it’s worth taking a chance on a piece, recently a man who regularly hunts through the bric-a-brac at a Habitat for Humanity charity shop in Queens, New York stumbled across a study drawing of a nude priced at $80, that he thought might be by the major Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Fortunately for him, his wife liked the drawing as well; fortunately for art historians and collectors, he nixed the Missus’ idea of hanging the piece in the bathroom, as he knew that the damp environment wouldn’t be good for the paper. After contacting a specialist in Schiele’s work for an evaluation, it turns out that the buyer’s instinct was correct, and the piece is now on display at the Galerie St. Etienne in Midtown Manhattan: estimated asking price, between $100,00-$200,000. That’s quite a steal.
Houston, We Have A Problem
Speaking of stealing, or to be more precise, burglary, we’re all aware that social media has brought us many problems – flame wars, spambots, the inexplicable rise of Cardi B. – but now it seems that there’s a new problem for art collectors in particular to worry about. Authorities in Houston have recently made arrests in an art theft ring, in which the alleged perpetrators used social media to target wealthy collectors in the area. The accused tracked the movements of the victims through their social media accounts in order to learn what they owned, and when they might be out of the house; in at least once case, they even infiltrated a large party that was being thrown at the home of one of the collectors, in order to scope out what was hanging on the walls. Among the items stolen (some of which have yet to be recovered) were works by Monet, Picasso, and this piece, “Paysage au coq rouge” (“Landscape with Red Rooster”) (1937) by the great French painter of the Art Deco period, Fernand Léger (1881-1955). In a society that has become accustomed to oversharing online, we should unfortunately expect this sort of thing to continue for the indefinite future.
For whatever reason, I found this story charming, perhaps because it shows how people love to collect beautiful things, and to share their collections and knowledge with others in order to build communities. Apparently, there is an organization called the Federation of Historic Bottle Collectors, which is shortly to celebrate its 50th Anniversary this weekend at the National Antique Bottle Convention in Augusta, Georgia. Not only will there be an opportunity to buy and sell antique bottles made of everything from glass to clay to stoneware, but there will be presentations on making, collecting, and preserving bottles, programs designed for children, and competitions to highlight some of the most interesting items at the show. You don’t have to be a member, or even a bottle collector, in order to attend (although perhaps you will want to become both after seeing some of the items on display?) The National Antique Bottle Convention opens today, and runs through Saturday, August 3rd.