For 73 years, the colossal white figure of Christ the Redeemer, this city's best-known icon, has gazed beatifically out to sea from its lofty perch on a mountain high above the madding crowd. Visible from nearly every part of Rio, the giant statue with outstretched arms is such a ubiquitous presence that residents, when asked who owns it, are prone to say, "Everybody."
Not so fast.
A family in faraway France has caused a minor stir here by claiming the copyright to the beloved figure and all royalties stemming from its reproduction -- a potential fortune judging by the multitude of T-shirts, postcards, paperweights, key rings, figurines, magnets, placemats, porcelain plates and other tacky souvenirs bearing the monument's likeness.
The descendants of Paul Landowski, the sculptor who fashioned the statue's massive head and hands, say that a 1998 Brazilian law on artistic authorship entitles them to the rights to the use of the statue's image. The family has hired lawyers to press its claim, in court if necessary.
But the demand has touched a raw nerve of patriotic indignation among some people who believe that Brazil's cultural heritage -- and possibly those of other countries -- is on the line.
"It belongs to mankind," actor Bemvindo Siqueira said of the monument. If Landowski's heirs succeed in their quest, "you could start a never-ending claim of property rights," he warned. "After the Christ, the Statue of Liberty could be next."
The family's Brazilian lawyers dismiss such an extreme scenario. They have no problem with calling the Christ statue a national treasure; in fact, they quite agree. Just give credit where credit is due, they say.
"We're not talking about who it belongs to. We're talking about rights of authorship," said Maria Luiza de Freitas Valle Egea, one of the family's attorneys, who is based in Sao Paulo. "The whole world knows that Paul Landowski was the sculptor of Christ the Redeemer."
Landowski was part of a team of artists and engineers commissioned by civic and church leaders to design, build and erect the concrete and soapstone statue in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Brazil's independence from Portugal, in 1922. The foundation stone was laid that year atop Corcovado mountain, on a spur jutting 2,300 feet above sea level.
Landowski fashioned the 33-ton head and 9-ton hands in his studio in France, then shipped the pieces to Brazil.
At 125 feet tall, the figure is an impressive sight, sometimes appearing to float above the clouds skimming the top of Corcovado or bathed in an otherworldly halo of light on a misty night. Its arms are flung open wide in a welcoming embrace, although some like to say that the Christ is actually about to take a dive into the ocean or clap for his favorite samba club.
When it was inaugurated on Oct. 12, 1931, the statue was to be illuminated from afar by Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor whose work introduced the world to radio. From his yacht in the Bay of Naples, Marconi was supposed to send an electric signal that would be picked up in England, then transferred to a power station in Rio, which would flood the monument with light. But bad weather interfered with the transmission and forced organizers to flip the switch in Rio themselves.
Last year, more than 1 million visitors hiked or rode a small train through the Tijuca forest up to the site. The views from the base of the landmark are breathtaking, with sunshine glinting off tiny white buildings and the sapphire canvas of the Atlantic Ocean below.
Inevitably, the statue's image has been stamped endlessly not just on the kitschy trinkets hawked by souvenir vendors but on shop signs, book covers, travel brochures, stationery and anything else in need of an instantly recognizable symbol of Rio.
The question now is whether the use of the image of Christ the Redeemer belongs to the public domain, Landowski's descendants or the Roman Catholic Church, which also lays claim to the statue but says it has no interest in charging for the commercial reproduction of its likeness. The Landowskis' attorneys contend that the law on intellectual and artistic property guarantees the family rights to the work for 70 years after the sculptor's death in 1961.
"His heirs hold the original sketch he made," said Christiane Ramonbordes of the Society of Authors in the Graphic and Plastic Arts, which represents the Landowskis in Paris. "Whether it's a historical monument or not doesn't change the exclusive rights to the work granted by the law to the heirs."
Jose Cabral, who manages a restaurant at the foot of the statue, isn't impressed by that argument.
"If [Landowski] wanted to claim rights, he would've done it when he was alive," Cabral said. "For the family to do so [decades] after he died is nonsense."
The family's lawyers say they have already contacted 30 companies, including advertising agencies and media firms, that use the statue's likeness and notified them of their client's claims. The attorneys hope for amicable negotiations but say they will go to court, perhaps as soon as August, if they have to.
They decline to estimate how much money the Landowskis could rake in from the royalties, but Siqueira, the actor, said, "Millions of dollars are flying around."
Siqueira says he has received numerous expressions of support since he spoke out this month against the Landowskis' claim.
"When I walk down the street, people say, 'We support you. We're not going to send money to the French. Jesus Christ is ours,' " Siqueira said.
He hopes that the government will step in and dispute the case as a matter of public interest. Legal maneuvering in Brazil's byzantine court system could make the case drag on for years -- which is fine by him.
"The legislation isn't clear. It's got cracks," Siqueira said. "And in Brazil, we live a lot in the cracks."