In 1993 a bust of Henrik Ibsen that had been stolen from St. Paul's Como Park 11 years earlier turned up in a Robbinsdale video store clad in a T-shirt and a baseball cap. Five years later Ibsen's still dead, and the bust still hasn't been returned to its pillar in the park.
But it did come a step closer to home earlier this month, when the St. Paul City Council unanimously passed an agreement to indemnify three individuals--among them an Augsburg College art professor--from any legal claim that might result from their roles in returning the bust. The agreement also indemnified the school.
The sculpture is the work of Norwegian-born Jacob Fjelde, who created it from an actual mold he'd made of his countryman's face, complete with the playwright's trademark ultra-bushy sideburns. Given to the city in 1907 by a Norwegian fraternal organization and placed atop a granite pedestal in Como Park, the St. Paul bust sat placidly for 75 years, until a person or persons unknown absconded with it.
In 1993 Karin Daniels noticed a bust of Ibsen on a shelf in the video store where she worked. Realizing it was something special, she consulted Kristin Anderson, one of her husband's former professors at Augsburg College and an expert in Scandinavian art. St. Paul police were alerted, but their findings were inconclusive--the store's owner said he'd purchased the sculpture from an antique dealer--and the bust stayed put. But ultimately Daniels got permission from her boss to take the sculpture home for safekeeping, and in 1996 she turned it over to Anderson. According to Anderson, four other castings of the piece, whose value she estimates at between $3,000 and $5,000, are known to exist: one in Tacoma, one in Wahpeton, N.D., and two in the Norwegian cities of Molde and Skien, outside Ibsen's home.
It wasn't until 1997 that statuary forensics experts conclusively determined that the video store Ibsen was the one that had been pilfered from Como Park. "It exactly fit," confirms Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art St. Paul, the nonprofit group that hired the art detectives. "There were chisel marks on the back of the base of the sculpture that exactly matched chisel marks on the sculpture."
Why has it taken so long to clear the way for returning the bust to the city?
Kristin Anderson says it's because no one seems to know anything about the 11-year gap between the theft of the sculpture and the video store proprietor's purported purchase. That's why, after the St. Paul city attorney's office suggested that an indemnity agreement might be a good idea, the art professor agreed. She hopes the legal maneuver will insulate her and the others in case anyone--in particular the video store owner, whom the indemnity agreement refers to as "a Mr. Lucas, [who] has moved to California, and his present whereabouts are unknown"--attempts to make a legal claim to the bust. "It is stolen property," Anderson points out.
"As far as I know, this is all the people who had it were waiting for to give it back," reports St. Paul assistant city attorney Virginia Palmer. But Anderson has yet to sign the document, and the bust continues to repose in her office at Augsburg. Don Ganje, project manager for Como Park, says he hopes to get the sculpture back sometime this fall, after one remaining hurdle is cleared: So far no one has designated a source to fund the cost of preparing the site.
Meanwhile, Anderson reports, "Henrik is sitting here on my floor, just waiting for a new home. He's a perfectly pleasant companion."