Arlington cemetery urns turn up on auction block, but how'd they get there?

Two nine-foot-tall, decorative marble urns from Arlington National Cemetery will go up for sale at an auction house. Preservationists want to know how urns landed in private hands.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 12:25 AM

Grand and ornate, the nine-foot-tall, decorative marble urns for decades flanked the stage of Arlington National Cemetery's Memorial Amphitheater, adjacent to the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Next weekend, however, the two urns, designed by the same firm that built the New York Public Library and the Russell Senate and Cannon House office buildings, will stand not at the forefront of one of the nation's most venerated shrines but rather are set to be up for sale at the Potomack Company, an Alexandria auction house.

The urns are literally "a piece of history," as the antiques dealer who now owns them likes to say. But their historic value - evident in photos of presidential visits since Woodrow Wilson dedicated the memorial in 1920 - is exactly why preservationists were stunned to learn that they are being sold to the highest bidder.

"It's alarming to see portions of our national legacy being sold off," said Robert Nieweg, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's southern field office. "It raises some red flags for us, and we have some very significant concerns about the cemetery's stewardship of this extraordinarily historic place."

How the urns, witness to so many public ceremonies, landed in private hands is something of a mystery. Under the strict procedures the federal government has adopted to protect its property - and particularly artifacts with historic and artistic value - the urns should have been restored or put in a museum, not put out on the open market, preservationists say.

Since 1997, the urns have been at DHS Designs, an antiques shop in Queenstown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Darryl Savage, the owner, is closing his store and auctioning off his inventory, which includes 14 marble balusters that were part of the railing that rings the amphitheater.

In an interview, he said he acquired the urns from another dealer, whom he would not identify. That dealer, Savage said, acquired them from a company that renovated the amphitheater in the mid-1990s. Savage said the company performing the renovation replaced the urns with modern replicas and was allowed to take away the originals.

The Department of the Army, whose stewardship of the cemetery has been questioned since an investigation found widespread burial problems there last year, confirmed that the contractor, Omni Construction - which later merged with Clark Construction, a venerable Bethesda firm - was to "dispose" of the urns.

But the Army, which learned of the sale of the urns from The Washington Post, has not been able to find the contract and could not provide details about how the urns or balusters were to be disposed of, said Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman.

Missing paperwork has been an ongoing source of trouble as the Army has struggled with management issues at the cemetery. Last summer, Army officials told a Senate committee that they could not find more than a dozen contracts that were part of the cemetery's failed effort to digitize its burial records.

Tallman also could not say Friday whether the cemetery had sought input from the agencies that monitor disposal of government property and preservation of historic artifacts.

"This is just another example of the poor contract management at Arlington Cemetery in recent years, and this cannot continue," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said in a statement released Saturday. "Both the Army and the contractors responsible for this have some explaining to do to the American people. The Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight will investigate how this happened."

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