Savannah Weighs Value of Art and History Amid COVID-19 Crisis
Ancient Roman statues once owned by a local Gilded Age millionaire are up for sale. Should they be?
The azaleas were blooming in Savannah’s downtown squares, as was fear of the coronavirus, when the city council convened via Zoom in early April to discuss how to manage the economic and health crises that had sent the city budget into a tailspin.
The nine-member council had already discussed how to enforce the COVID-19 shutdown, the $650,000 emergency sewer repairs for southside neighborhoods and the millions of dollars of tourism revenue lost from cancelling the beloved St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The last item on the afternoon agenda lifted the somber mood. Instead of another expense, the council had a revenue opportunity: the sale of ancient Roman statuary once owned by a long-forgotten local robber baron and consigned to a dusty city warehouse. More than a quirky relic of Savannah history or an illustration of its venerable identity as a Southern haven of art, the collection – and what to do with it – illustrates the tough tradeoffs that cities around America are making between cultural resources and public services at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has devastated municipal finances.
The sale of the statuary was first raised in 2012, when an insurance appraisal valued the collection at approximately $400,000. This spring, city officials revived the idea as a way to put some fast cash in the coffers.
“These are pieces that have been in storage a long time, gathering dust,” said City of Savannah Chief Operating Officer Bret Bell. “Frankly, we don’t have the space to display them.”
The motion approving the sale passed quickly, but the vote raised more questions than it answered: Will the statuary’s 2012 appraisal still hold in post-COVID times? Would the city garner more by selling what may be the largest collection of Roman antiquities in the Southeast as a single lot or piece by piece?
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