NEW YORK – A long-forgotten piece of America's military history is going up for sale.
The original smaller statue of the iconic raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima in 1945 is expected to fetch up to $1.8 million later this month at a New York auction dedicated to World War II artifacts.
That such a statue even exists is news to all but the most ardent history buffs.
Most Americans are familiar with the 32-foot-tall Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va. Felix de Weldon's 1954 bronze depicts five Marines and a Navy Corpsman raising the flag on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi as Allied forces struggled to capture the Japanese-held island.
Less well-known is the 12 1/2-foot-tall statue created soon after the event.
De Weldon, a young sculptor serving as an artist in the Navy, became instantly transfixed by an Associated Press image of the Feb. 19, 1945, flag planting, which would earn photographer Joe Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize and resonate around the world.
"It's an incredibly iconic image of bravery," says Marci Reaven, vice president of historic exhibits at the New-York Historical Society. "It immediately captured Americans' imaginations, their hopes for victory and their fears at a difficult time."
De Weldon canceled a weekend leave to model a wax sculpture of the photo to present to the chiefs of staff. Congress soon called for construction of a large statue. But burdened with war debt, it could provide no financing and de Weldon agreed to fund it himself.
Completed in just three months, de Weldon's cast stone monument was erected in Washington, D.C., in front of what is now the Federal Reserve Building on Constitution Avenue. It remained there until it was removed in 1947 to make room for a new building.
At about the same time, the government authorized a foundation for de Weldon to build a much larger flag-raising statue in bronze -- the 32-foot Iwo Jima monument in Arlington.
The 12 1/2-foot version was returned to de Weldon, who covered it with a tarp behind his studio. It remained largely forgotten for more than four decades.
The story of how military historian and collector Rodney Hilton Brown came to own the statue is, like Rosenthal's photograph, one for the history books.
In researching material for a biography on de Weldon, Brown learned about the old studio and amazingly found the monument still covered by the tarp. He purchased the 5-ton monument from de Weldon in 1990, paying with "a Stradivarius violin, a 1920s solid silver Newport yachting trophy and a lot of money."
But years of neglect had taken their toll. The joints of the sculpture's inner steel skeleton suffered extensive damage. Brown was told by a restoration house that it could build a brand-new monument for a quarter of the cost that it would take to restore it.
"They said, `You're crazy.' And I said, `You're right, I'm crazy. I'm crazy for my Marine Corps. I'm crazy for my country," Brown says. "This is the original first Iwo Jima from the last year of WWII and it's going to get restored."
Brown unveiled the restored version of the statue in 1995 on the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima. It remained on the aircraft carrier until 2007 and was then moved to a storage facility in Connecticut.
Brown, 70, founder of the New York-based Virtual War Museum, said he wants to sell the statue now because "it doesn't fit in my living room. I want to find it a good home so we can pass the flag onto somebody else."
It will be brought out of storage for display in a sculpture garden adjacent to Bonhams auction house in Manhattan before the Feb. 22 sale.
The successful bidder will also get the tools de Weldon used to build the statue, plus the sculptor's drawings, sketches and photos of the monument. Also included is the June 4, 1945, Orders for Rosenthal and de Weldon to report to the White House to present a model of the monument to President Harry S. Truman.
Among the other 186 lots at the auction is a 16-by-20-inch copy of Rosenthal's award-winning photograph that includes a handwritten inscription to de Weldon. The only known photograph autographed by the photographer to the sculptor, it's expected to sell for $7,000 to $10,000, Brown said.