Solving a mystery of the deep
Posted May 6, 2009
Photo courtesy of the Grosse Pointe War Memorial
Stolen War Memorial statue found by police divers
DETROIT — Detroit Police Department Dive Team divers felt “The Nude” in the Detroit River before they ever saw her.
While on a routine training dive two weeks ago to recover a submerged car off of Alter Road, one of the divers came in contact with the sculpture’s hand and head. With no visibility in the murky waters, they had to postpone the recovery until May 6.
That’s when they spotted the head and arms of what they thought might be a lawn ornament or a small sculpture from the old veteran’s hospital, said Detroit Police Sgt. Michael Carpenter, who’s assigned to Homeland Security and heads the dive team. They didn’t realize that what they’d really found was more than 5 feet tall and 500-600 pounds, or that it was a sculpture worth thousands that had been stolen eight years earlier from the grounds of the Grosse Pointe War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms.
“I knew it was definitely out of the ordinary,” Carpenter said with a laugh.
With help from Sgt. John Fissette, Carpenter attached the sculpture to the police boat’s winch and brought her aboard. Thus began a new chapter in the life of “The Nude,” a bronze by Philadelphia-born artist Harriet Whitney Frismuth (1880-1980), who once studied with sculptor Auguste Rodin in France.
“We always try to be prepared for the unexpected, but yesterday was definitely unique for the crew,” said Chief Warrant Officer Tim Monck, commanding officer at the Belle Isle U.S. Coast Guard Station, in a prepared statement issued May 7. “The Detroit Police Department Dive Team, one of our local partners … were able to get the 6 foot tall, 600 pound bronze statue aboard their dive boat, but they needed help getting it off of the boat. They brought it to the (Belle Isle Coast Guard) Station and we were able to offload it and secure it. Since then, we’ve had a steady stream of detectives, reporters and historians at the station to view the statue.”
Baffled by the discovery, police sent a photo of the statue to the Detroit Historical Society for their help identifying it. DHS CEO Bob Bury, a Grosse Pointe Park resident, remembered the War Memorial theft and recommended that DHS Curator Joel Stone contact War Memorial President Mark Weber.
“The pieces seemed to fit,” Bury said.
Like most people, Weber had given up hope the statue would ever be recovered, so he was stunned when he saw a photo of what looked very much like “The Nude,” which had stood in the War Memorial’s garden fountain for years. Appraised at $100,000, the statue had been on the grounds roughly since the 1940s. Then it vanished on May 21, 2001.
Weber said War Memorial officials were told the theft had been committed by professionals, since the bolts that attached it to a cement base had been hacksawed and the water lines crimped to stop the water flow. Around the same time, Weber said sculptures were taken from Wayne State University, Marygrove College and Cranbrook, leading law enforcement officers to conclude that a professional art theft ring was behind the missing works.
“We figured we’d probably never get it back,” said Weber, who added that they’d been told the statue had likely been shipped through Canada to a buyer in the Middle East.
When Weber arrived at Belle Isle, he said he knew “it was ours.”
Carpenter said his team has recovered plenty of odd things before in the river, from cannons and rumrunners to the oldest French musket in the United States, but the sculpture was “definitely the most valuable.”
Although it’s impossible to tell how long the zebra mussel-covered bronze had been in the water, Carpenter said it had likely been there roughly as long as it’s been missing. Because of the time span, he said investigators probably wouldn’t be able to get trace evidence off of the sculpture to figure out who took it in the first place.
Being able to reunite the sculpture with its original owners has been especially rewarding for the divers.
“It’s really neat being able to return it to them,” Carpenter said. “It’s like returning someone’s lost child.”
Coincidentally, the DHS’ Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle has a new exhibit on display, “Committed to the Deep: Exploring Underwater Treasures,” which looks at shipwrecks and other underwater discoveries — including the Edmund Fitzgerald. In another odd coincidence, Carpenter was part of the team that recovered the Edmund Fitzgerald’s anchor. There was no word at press time whether “The Nude” might be added to the exhibit, but if she is, she doesn’t have far to travel, since she’s already on the island.
An insurance company representative was slated to visit Belle Isle May 11 to get the sculpture. Since the company already paid a claim on the lost statue, Weber wasn’t sure if the War Memorial would be getting “The Nude” back.
“If it comes back to the War Memorial, it will definitely go inside,” Weber said.
For more information about the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, visit www.detroithistorical.org or call (313) 833-5538.
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