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? 

Lifestyles of the Gilded Age

Just how has the City of Savannah come to own a collection of ancient Italian marble statues in the first place? The story starts at the end of the 19th century, when Canadian businessman Spencer P. Shotter built a lucrative business on the East Coast by processing Georgia’s extensive pine forests into turpentine, a crucial substance for shipbuilding. His Savannah-based American Naval Stores generated hundreds of jobs and helped establish Savannah as a major port after the Civil War, according to Thomas Gamble in his 1921 book Naval Stores: History, Production and Consumption.

In 1898, he built an opulent mansion on a bend along the Wilmington River and filled it with priceless art. With its regal 20-foot columns, 40 rooms and English gardens, the neoclassical Greenwich Place rivaled the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C.

An early donor towards the Oglethorpe Monument in Savannah’s Chippewa Square, Shotter was an active socialite, both here and among other Gilded Age millionaires. The New York Times reported in 1905 that he brought his “colored” staff from Savannah to his Massachusetts estate to cook a Southern breakfast for 100 guests attending a fox hunt. Party favors, as described by the Times, were “Negro cotton-picker” dolls carrying baskets of “real cotton blossoms.”

Shotter’s fortunes faltered in 1909 when the U.S. government slapped him with an antitrust lawsuit. Despite the threat to his livelihood, he traveled to Rome for a shopping spree in 1912. U.S. Customs paperwork shows that several pieces of marble statuary arrived by boat in Savannah that July.

But Shotter had little time to enjoy his new purchases. While he and his partners ultimately won the lawsuit, he had to liquidate assets to pay his lawyers. In 1916, Andrew Carnegie purchased the Massachusetts estate for $300,000. Greenwich Place was sold off in 1917 — with its indoor and outdoor art collections included — to the Torrey family of Detroit.

The new owners revived a glamorous social scene at Greenwich Place, even offering it up for Hollywood movie sets. In 1920, “Stolen Moments” showed a villainous Rudolph Valentino strolling among the gardens in the only known film footage of the statuary in situ.

In the early hours of Jan. 27, 1923, the estate burned to the ground after an electrical fire started in the second-floor sewing room. The Torreys escaped unharmed, including then 10-year-old Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey-West, who survived by being thrown out of a window. The family lived aboard their 100-foot yacht docked on the Wilmington River until receiving a $500,000 insurance settlement, which they used to buy Ossabaw Island.

The Torreys took the original iron gates with them to Ossabaw, which Sandy spent her life building into an artists’ retreat and ecological sanctuary. As the family’s former grand estate faded from Savannah’s memory—so did the fate of its statues.

City buys Greenwich ruins

The moldering ruins of Greenwich Place were purchased in 1937 for $75,000 by the City of Savannah as an extension of Bonaventure Cemetery. The property, then as now, provides few clues of the faded grandeur, other than the original bridged pond from Shotter’s English gardens and a crumbling Art Deco fountain.

This art deco fountain in Greenwich Cemetery is one of the few reminders of Greenwich Place. (Craig Nelson/The Current)

Over the decades the antiquities remained boxed up in a cemetery warehouse under the purview of Savannah’s Park and Tree Commission. In 1965, in order to free up space, the city department turned over the collection to the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences on indefinite loan.

Since then the choicest pieces of Shotter’s collection, including two double-headed Janus statues from the First Century A.D. and a bust of the Roman Emperor Trajan, became part of the museum’s rotating exhibits.

In 1988, the Telfair returned nine pieces back to the city, citing its own limited storage space. Those items went back into wooden crates.

In 2012, city officials took a harder look at the art and other assets on the city’s books. Atlanta-based Aaron Appraisal Services issued an insurance appraisal that calculated the replacement values of the collection at $395,000.

But turnover in city offices stymied progress on the issue. No one initiated the research into provenance of the items, an essential piece of due diligence in the global art market.

Shotter’s customs forms from Italy list the galleries he bought the statues from, but little detail remains about how the dealers acquired them. A 1958 Savannah Morning News article refers to the statuary as originating from the ruins of Pompeii, though there is no evidence to support the claim.

The art world has changed dramatically since Shotter’s trip to Rome, an era when rich Europeans and Americans plucked precious historical artifacts from nations without thought for national heritage or legalities.

Joanna van der Lande, Chairman of the Antiquities Dealers Association, an international body with expertise on ancient world art, says there is a steady demand for Roman antiquities. A sale of Savannah’s collection would generate interest among high-end art collectors as long as the collection’s provenance and authenticity can be established, she said.

Assessing the value

Dr. Mark Abbe, an associate professor of Ancient Art History at the University of Georgia and expert in art collections around the Southeast, first saw the Greenwich statuary on a trip to Telfair in 2018. He marveled at their rarity, and planned the first rigorous academic study of the pieces.

Around the same time, then-City Manager Rob Hernandez raised the idea to auction off the statues to help Savannah’s finances. Hernandez left his job in 2019 without taking action.

Last winter Bell, the Savannah city executive, the city’s director of cemeteries and the head of municipal archives revisited the idea of a sale to fund upkeep of the city’s historic cemeteries. They also discussed commissioning a memorial to buried slaves in the historic African American cemetery or restoring the fountain at Greenwich Place.

They agreed that a proposed sale should only include the statuary in the city’s warehouses, not the choice items on loan to the Telfair

The museum wants to keep the items on display. “The museum staff do believe that these works are significant due to their connections to Savannah’s history and to Ossabaw Island and Sandy West, which few people know about,” said Harry Delorme, Telfair Museums’ Senior Curator of Education.

Abbe, meanwhile, was scheduled to begin his research in March after securing a grant from UGA’s Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. But COVID-19 closures delayed those plans. 

He was surprised to learn of the April 9 city council vote to sell some of the pieces, while the council was unaware of the UGA research project.

At the council meeting, participants discussed the necessity of hiring a professional to evaluate the collection. Alderwoman Linda Wilder-Bryan spoke approvingly of using proceeds for cemeteries, one of Savannah’s leading historic attractions. Alderman Nick Palumbo amended the motion up for a vote to exclude one of the nine items from sale—the capital of a 17th century Corinthian column—and send it to the Telfair, which already displays its pair.

The decision to split the collection in any future sale affects projected revenue. The 2012 appraisal provided replacement value to individual pieces in the collection, ranging from $6,000 to $68,000. An art auction appraisal, however, could come back with wildly different values, based on an evaluation of authenticity, uniqueness and general quality.

In the wake of the vote, city officials are now preparing a request for bids to hire an art broker to guide a sale, a process that will be subject to further discussion by the city council.

Abbe, the UGA authority on ancient art collections, cautions against breaking up the collection as a rare relic of Savannah’s history.

“There are no parallels in the history of the state of one person going to Rome, collecting these types of antiquities and displaying them in a private house,” he said. “It’s very unusual for Southerners to go on a Grand Tour and to come back with a significant body of marble sculpture, even in Charleston. In that regard, it’s an important part of the history of art collecting in the Southeast.”

Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving spicy food for more than 25 years. This year her work has appeared in Thrillist, THOM Magazine, Savannah...