The perplexing question of what happened to sculptor Henri Marie-Rose’s infamous public statue, Sailor and Mermaid, remains unanswered after 44 years. Marie-Rose, a 58 year Potrero Hill resident who died in 2010, created the piece from bronze and copper sheets; cut, pounded and welded. It sat atop a cement base installed in front of the San Francisco Department of Public Health Building at 1351 24th Avenue in the outer Richmond. The San Francisco Art Commission registered it in their 1970 collection as part of its annual inventory of public works; the so-called wall to wall survey.
A meeting held in the 1990s at the Public Health building, attended by Marie-Rose’s son, Pediatrician Pierre-Joseph-Marie-Rose, led to his discovery that the statue was missing. When the younger Marie-Rose went to inspect the piece to his surprise there was nothing where it should have been but a cement stump. Dr. Marie-Rose was shocked and dismayed.
No one knows for sure when Sailor and Mermaid went missing. SFPH had allowed the shrubbery around the statute to grow for years. When they cut it back, the art piece was gone. The son had to reveal the terrible news to his father. Surprisingly, the sculptor was unaware that the statue had gone missing. Perhaps when Marie-Rose drove by his statue, if he ever did, he only saw the beauty of the foliage.
According to Allison Cummings, the San Francisco Art Commission’s senior registrar, the Commission is aware that the piece was gone. Cummings explained that SFAC is responsible for managing 4,000 permanent public art pieces, awarding new commissions, and overseeing a City directive that two percent of new building space be devoted to public art. She said the 1990 wall to wall inventory revealed the piece was missing; it was suspected that it had been gone for a very long time.
Cummings posited that the piece may have been a victim of what she called, “the stolen financial scrap theory,” a conjecture not new to the Art Commission, where numerous works are unaccounted for. High prices for bronze and copper wire have triggered thefts from everywhere these metals are installed, including as part of art pieces. According to Cummings, legislation passed last year directed at scrapyards has reduced the problem. Under current law in cases in which a load is suspicious scrap dealers are required to report to the police and/or the Art Commission before purchasing the items.
In addition to theft, public art falls prey to vandals. Over the last five years San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks gardeners and the Art Commission have collaborated to address the defacing and theft of public art. “It is very disturbing,” said Cummings, “that our beautiful pieces of art are stolen or defaced by tagging.”
Marie-Rose’s death makes Sailor and Mermaid irreplaceable. The Art Commission plans to remove the cement base soon. There’s only one other public piece by Marie-Rose, a copper relief installed on the exterior of a Sansome Street fire station. Stealing it would be a challenge, as it’s placed high on the building.