The owner of a pair of towering, decorative urns that were originally part of Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater told Army officials on Tuesday that he would return them, saying that they belong at the nation’s most revered burial ground, not on the auction block.
The nine-foot-tall marble urns, which were replaced during a renovation of the amphitheater in the mid-1990s, were to be put up for public sale by the Potomack Company, an Alexandria auction house, next weekend.
But after being informed of the sale by The Washington Post, the Department of the Army, which oversees the cemetery, asked the auction house to postpone the sale “pending additional research to determine rightful ownership and disposition.”
Several preservation groups expressed outrage that the urns, which appear in many histroic photographs of the cemetery, were being put on the auction block.
On Tuesday afternoon, several Army officials visited the auction house, said they would gladly accept the urns and started making plans to retake ownership.
“I am very happy they are going to have a good resting place,” said Darryl Savage, an antiques dealer who acquired the urns in 1997.
“We’ll make sure of that,” said Hew Wolfe, the Army’s Historic Preservation Officer.
Wolfe said it was not yet clear what the Army would do with the urns. It’s possible that they may go on display at the cemetery, or at a museum, he said, such as the Army museum that is being built at Fort Belvoir.
The return of the urns may have pleased preservationists who had criticized the Army for not better protecting them, but it does not end the mystery of how they ended up in private hands in the first place.
For 14 years, Savage has had them on display at DHS Designs, his antiques shop in Queenstown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He said he purchased the urns from another dealer, whom he would not identify. According to Savage, that dealer acquired them from one of the companies involved in the amphitheater renovation.
Army officials said the renovation’s original request for proposals instructed contractors to “dispose” of the urns. But the Army has not been able to locate the contract and could not provide details about how the urns were to be disposed.
The design plans for the project, however, dictated that the urns were to be preserved, Justin G. Buller, the cemetery’s associate deputy general counsel, said Tuesday. He said the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which helps ensure that historic government artifacts are not unnecessarily discarded, reviewed and approved those plans.