Want a piece of the Statue of Liberty? Try a new copper jewellery line

The Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in New York.
The Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in New York. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - For more than three decades, Mr Rick Stocks has been hoarding a mountain of construction debris - so much of it that he had to squirrel it all away in three warehouses in Tennessee and Florida.

Only he is no ordinary hoarder, and this is not just any debris. Mr Stocks is the self-appointed caretaker of tossed-out parts of the Statue of Liberty.

Following a top-to-bottom, US$87 million restoration of the statue in the 1980s, he was the one who carted away the more than 1,700 rusted iron bars that had formed a kind of rib cage inside the statue (they were replaced by stainless steel bars) along with the saddle-shaped copper pieces that held them in place.

He also got the worn, bronze handrails from the staircase inside the statue's pedestal, and two dozen bronze lamps that once sat at its base.

In all, Mr Stocks took possession of more than 50,000 pounds of discarded materials from the statue, as well as from a historic building on Ellis Island also being renovated at the time. He spent a total of US$3 million in order to purchase, haul away and preserve everything.

"It's a labour of love," he said. "I never focused on the money side of things." From time to time, Mr Stocks has allowed some of the trove out into the world. There was the copper that he used for a line of souvenirs upon the statue's centennial in 1986; a popular item was just a Lucite box with a chip of copper inside. He also donated copper for holiday ornaments sold by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the monument's official nonprofit partner, for its own fundraising purposes.

Some of the iron bars were given to the State Department to be fashioned into gifts for foreign dignitaries. One bar was hand forged into another symbol of liberty: a replica of a key to the Bastille, the infamous French fortress and state prison. Another bar was presented intact, with a sculpted "peace dove" added, to Pope Francis during his visit to the United States last year.

"It truly is Liberty reaching out and touching people's lives," said Mr Stocks, 57, in a recent phone interview from his home in Franklin, Tennessee. "I'm just the caretaker and I'm trying to find a way to keep them for the public good."

Now, in the biggest release of materials yet, copper from the statue is being featured in a new line of jewellry - the Liberty Copper Collection - introduced in September by a Rhode Island-based jewellery company, Alex and Ani. More than 10,000 pieces bearing a raised copper flame have been sold so far, according to the company.

Mr Stocks, a genial man who sprinkles historical tidbits about the statue into his conversation, recalled reading about the monument in history books while growing up, in Alabama and Florida. His family had no personal connection. The closest he ever came to the statue, he recalled, was in third grade, when someone made a cardboard prop with the statue painted in the background. He still has a photograph of himself posing beside it.

He was working for his father, a real estate developer, in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1982 when he learned of the planned restoration of the Statue of Liberty. Though he had no training or skills in preservation, he wanted to be part of the effort, he said. He called the foundation, which was in charge of the restoration, and asked how much stuff was "coming off" the monument. A lot, he was told.

Mr Stocks started a company, called Gold Leaf, which also does business as Soleia, or Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Ambassadors, and headed to New York City. He paid US$1 million to the foundation for the copper and other debris from the statue and the Liberty Island site. The agreement also included discarded materials from the registry building at Ellis Island: ornamental copper rosettes from the roof, as well as bricks, wood doors and bronze doorknobs.

Mr Stocks said he spent another US$2 million transporting, storing and preserving the materials from the two sites. He said he had not yet recovered the costs.

Ms Peg Zitko, executive vice president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, said the materials would have been disposed of because there was simply no room to store them. As part of the agreement with Mr Stocks, officials with the foundation and the National Park Service must approve any future use of the items.

"It was a kind of construction discard - some was more meaningful than others - but nonetheless it had to be hauled away," she said.

Besides, she added, "What can you do with all of this?" Mr Stocks has spent years trying to answer that question. Nearly every week, he said, his phone rings with offers from people who have ideas for selling his materials for profit. He said he had rejected hundreds.

"Once you preserve these artifacts, you're responsible for them," he said. "I felt the weight of that responsibility. It's a very important thing to do."

The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation received an initial payment from Gold Leaf for use of the copper, but it would not name the amount, citing a confidential agreement with Mr Stocks. Alex and Ani has pledged to donate a minimum of US$100,000 to the foundation in the next year.

Foundation officials announced this month that they were raising money to build a new US$70 million museum on the island. The entrance to the new museum is to feature a sculpture made from the statue's old iron bars, which would be provided by Mr Stocks.

Mr John Piltzecker, the park service's superintendent of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and of Ellis Island, said park officials were always concerned about the use of the statue's materials for commercial purposes, but he believed the new jewellery line "was executed with a sensitivity and respect for the subject matter that is apparent in its design". He added, "We hope that it will inspire and spark countless conversations about what the Statue of Liberty means."

Mr Stocks said he envisions preserving many of his remaining items for a museum display. He wants to use other items to create what he calls "one-of-a-kind art". At his request, the Gibson company created a so-called Spirit of America guitar, using wood removed from Ellis Island and copper from the old copper support saddles inside the statue. He commissioned another company, Orange County Choppers, to build a "Liberty Bike", a copper-plated motorcycle, which is now on display at Liberty Island.

Mr Stocks learned of Ms Carolyn Rafaelian, the owner of Alex and Ani, from a friend in 2013. Ms Rafaelian's paternal grandfather, Melkon Rafaelian, had arrived at Ellis Island from Armenia in 1913, settled in Providence, Rhode Island, and started a family. His son, Ms Rafaelian's father, Ralph, started a company, Cinerama Jewelry, which became known for its American flag pins. In 2004, Ms Rafaelian started her own jewellery company, which has grown to 80 stores worldwide. Mr Stocks contacted Ms Rafaelian and they were soon sharing their visions for the Statue of Liberty's copper.

Mr Stocks eventually sold the bulk of the copper in his warehouses to Ms Rafaelian. Both have declined to give details of their financial arrangement, citing a confidential agreement. "We connected on a soul level," Ms Rafaelian recalled. "I was going to take on his mission with him."

The new jewellery features a round, sterling-silver medallion with a raised copper flame in the shape of the statue's torch, accompanied by the words "Carry Light". A simple cord bracelet costs US$38; a diamond necklace, US$2,000. Mr Stocks has bought a bracelet for himself and a ring for his wife, and he plans to load up on presents to give to his two daughters and other relatives. He will also keep some of the jewellery on hand for the next time he gives a talk with his artifacts at a local school. Inevitably, he said, someone asks to keep a piece of the statue. Before, his answer was no, he said. Not anymore. "Finally," he said. "Finally, I can give them something."