RALEIGH, N.C. -- An impressive marble sculpture of the first king of Israel, which disappeared from public view for 150 years, has been acquired by a North Carolina art museum from a boarding school in England.
But before the sculpture titled "Saul Under the Influence of Evil" is installed in the permanent collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art, conservators must remove the glitter stuck in the crevices of the statue's clothing and remnants of what might be black fingernail polish.
It seems the students of Rendcomb College, a private boarding school, liked to dress up Saul as various characters during the holidays, including Gandalf from "Lord of the Rings" and Santa Claus, said John Coffey, the museum's curator of American and modern art.
"It became a mascot for the school," Coffey said. "Generations of students had fond memories of it."
The public can watch the conservators as they clean the statue in the museum's East Building. Conservators will be working on "Saul" most weekday mornings through the spring of 2019.
American sculptor William Wetmore Story carved "Saul" in 1865 in Rome, and it was shown that same year in Dublin after Pope Pius IX paid for it to be exhibited there, Coffey said. When art historians began reviewing Story's career some 100 years later, they couldn't find "Saul," he said.
Turns out, Sir Francis Goldsmid — the first Jew to become an English barrister — had bought the statue and taken it to his country house in Gloucestershire. The house later became Rendcomb College, which sold the statue to the museum earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.
Since he became a curator at the art museum 30 years ago, Coffey had searched for a major monument marble to fill in a gap in the museum's American collection. He didn't want the statues of attractive women that were typically available so when a New York dealer contacted him seven years ago about "Saul," he was immediately intrigued.
But that deal fell through when the school backed out, Coffey said. He then heard back in 2017 from the dealer, who said the school was again interested selling the statue. The school sold the statue to the museum earlier this year.
"Something like this may never come up on the market again," Coffey said. "I never thought I'd have a second chance at it."
He describes "Saul" as "one of the most memorable sculptures made by an American in the 19th century." The Bible tells the story that Saul disobeyed God and was then afflicted with an evil spirit. Only David could sooth Saul, with his singing and harp-playing.
Story said his sculpture depicted the king at the moment when the evil spirit enters him with one hand clutching his beard and his other hand reaching for his dagger.
"You're put in the position of being David when you confront this statue," Coffey said. "He's just glowering at you from this pedestal."
Anne Faircloth, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth and a member of the museum's board of trustees, and her husband, Frederick Beaujeu-Dufor, bought the statue in honor of Coffey.
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