With computer algorithms created in 2009 by researchers at Florida Atlantic University, it is now possible to fabricate a new head, elbow and toes for decapitated Lorelei using historic photographs of the sculpture as it looked in 1930 when it was brought to Fort Myers from Italy by benefactor Evelyn Rea. But who, exactly, has the authority to make the decision whether or not to restore the statue to its former glory?
In art, researchers and art historians use the term provenance to refer to an artwork's chain of ownership from the time it leaves the artist's studio or atelier until it reaches its present owner. But with Lorelei, it's not entirely clear who actually owns the 133-year-old marble sculpture.
Lorelei sits in a landscaping bed outside the front entrance to the Fort Myers - Lee County Library. Go to the library reference desk, and the reference librarians will assure you that the library owns the sculpture. But when they run a "fugitive facts" search, there's no mention of ownership. Instead, the answer comes up that "the white marble statue, created by Italian sculptor Pliner ... was brought to Ft. Myers from Italy by Mrs. Evelyn Rhea in 1930."
These facts are fugitive indeed. First, Lorelei's sculptor wasn't Italian, but American. And her name wasn't Pliner, but Bostonian Emma Elisabeth Phinney.
Phinney was in Rome studying sculpture when she carved Lorelei from a block of Italian white marble. She was interviewed at Rome's Royal Academy of Fine Arts on May 26, 1881 by The New York Times, which reported that her “short career as an art student has been crowned with more than the usual success. Within the five years she has been at work, she has produced several popular statues; those that have attracted the most attention being a Lorelei, the bust of a North American Indian, and one of a negro [sic] boy formerly in the Grosvenor Gallery in London and now on exhibit in the Paris Salon.”
Complicating the search for the current owner of Ms. Phinney's Lorelei is the library's own bifurcated ownership. Apparently the land that the library sits on is owned by Fort Myers while the library itself is operated by the Lee County Library System.
Trot across the grass mall to the Southwest Florida Museum of History, and Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs Education/Research Director Jim Powers will share a booklet entitled "The Epic of the Fort Myers - Lee County Library" by Richard Powell. On page 9, the booklet discloses that in 1959 the library received "a gift of a lovely statue named Lorelei [that] was willed to the library by Evelyn D. Rhea, who thoughtfully included $200 to have the statue moved from her home to the library grounds."
Armed with that clue, our next stop is the Lee County Justice Center to see if they have a record of Evelyn Rhea's will. The county's records date back to the 1800s, and they do have a copy of The Last Will and Testament of Evelyn D. Rea. Is it the same woman as Evelyn D. Rhea? We find our answer in the second paragraph of the will, which states, "I give my statue 'Lorelei', which is located in the garden of my residence at 410 First Street, Fort Myers, Florida, to the PUBLIC LIBRARY OF FORT MYERS."
Although there is no mention of a $200 cash gift to cover moving expenses, it seems clear that Evelyn D. Rhea and Evelyn D. Rea are one and the same person. And Ms. Rea bequeathed Lorelei to the library by her will dated July 20, 1955. Rea died in 1959 and the sculpture was apparently distributed to the library in 1960 after the claims of Ms. Rea's creditors were paid or otherwise barred.
But what of the verbiage "Public Library of Fort Myers"? Sheldon Kaye, the Director of the Lee County Library System, answers this inquiry. "The Lee County Library System didn't exist in 1959," Kaye advises. So this suggests that the City of Fort Myers now owns the sculpture unless Lee County somehow became Lorelei's owner when it established the Lee County Library System.
A quick check with Lee County officials establishes that the county disbanded its public art program in 1999. However, before they did, the county had its collection documented and appraised. Lorelei is not among the artworks listed in the inventory and appraisal, and as far as it's concerned, they have no ownership interest or stake in the beheaded statue.
Thus, it seems that we have our answer. Title to Lorelei resides with the City of Fort Myers, and if so, then its care, custody, conservation, repair and maintenance is the responsibility of the Fort Myers Public Art Committee. But what will the Committee decide about the statue's restoration? And where will they place it once the library moves to its new location between Richmond and First Streets?
Look for the next instalment of this series for a delineation of the issues that the Committee will need to resolve in order to answer these and other important questions governing the future of Fort Myers' oldest (although not first) public artwork.