Jeff Jardine

Gold Star Kids getting help from Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s “Moses” sits in the Church of San Pietro di Vincoli in Rome.
Michelangelo’s “Moses” sits in the Church of San Pietro di Vincoli in Rome. The Bettmann Archive

Irving Stone’s stirring 1961 book, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” tells the story of Michelangelo’s life and his struggles with numerous popes as he painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, carved his famous “David” and became the most renowned artist of his time.

The book’s title is meaningful to anyone who has experienced both pain and joy in life, and who hasn’t? Consider the soldiers, sailors, Marines, law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first responders who die in the line of duty. Their children are left behind to bury their hero, to cope, to agonize. These children also can experience great joy, and that usually is the case when they succeed in school and receive their college diplomas – assuming they can afford rising education costs.

But thanks to a fortuitous link between an Oakdale-based nonprofit called Gold Star Kids and a philanthropic art company in Oregon, they will soon be getting help from a most unlikely source: Michelangelo himself.

Michelangelo? The Italian Renaissance master who died in 1564? Yes, that Michelangelo.

Here’s the connection: As of Friday, 8 a.m. Pacific time, Oregon’s Aquilarts Inc. acquired the Chiurazzi Foundry in Italy and control over the greatest collection of classic art molds in the world. It includes molds made from the works of Michelango, Bernini, Canova, Dell’Arca, Giambologna and other Italian master sculptors.

They use the molds to create bronze first- or second-edition “posthumous originals.” Just 12 can be made from any one mold. Aquilarts uses bronze rather than the original marble. It then offers them to charitable organizations to sell, splitting the profits 50-50. Gold Star Kids will sell three statues, including two Michelangelos and one whose restoration he was involved in.

The bottom line is that if the pieces sell at close to what Aquilarts expects, Gold Star Kids will be able to provide 140 children of the fallen individual scholarships totaling $25,000 spread over five years, Gold Star Kids executive director Kent Harris said.

The buyer or buyers, meanwhile, can get a tax break on anything above what the Internal Revenue Services deems fair market value on each of the pieces because that portion will be considered a donation to the charity, Kent Harris said.

The local nonprofit broke away from the national Gold Star Kids organization and in April received its own 501(c)3 designation so that it could concentrate on the needs of the Valley.

Of the 445 children of fallen military personnel identified as being of school age throughout California, 311 live in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Tuolumne and Merced counties, Harris said. There no doubt are more, but the nonprofit won’t intrude into their family lives, he said.

“We have to have their permission to put them on the list,” he said. Veterans Affairs officials will contact the families, which then contact Gold Star Kids to request they be added.

The local organization, though, also includes children of police officers, firefighters and other first responders killed in the line of duty. Through support from another chapter, local fundraising activities and other sources, the Oakdale nonprofit last week presented checks to four area families whose sons – Army Sgt. 1st Class Chad Gonsalves of Turlock, Marine Cpl. Michael Anderson of Modesto, Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Gage of Modesto and Army National Guard Capt. Ray Hill of Modesto – were killed either in Iraq or Afghanistan.

So the infusion of cash from the art sale will make a huge difference for many more children and families, Harris said.

Harris said he was contacted recently by Angie Zook of Aquilarts, who came across the nonprofit online and offered some small statues for the organization’s May fundraiser dinner and auction. That led to this more expansive opportunity, offering Gold Star Kids the chance to find buyers with a stake in the sale. And we’re not talking about small, bookshelf-size reproductions to be sold to the highest bidder during the silent auction at a spaghetti dinner. These are full size, cast from the molds of the originals.

Michelangelo completed “Moses” in about 1515, or 500 years ago. The statue, valued at $30 million, “depicts the Old Testament prophet seated with the Tablets of the Law under one arm, and his hands gathered in his voluminous beard,” as described by the Chiurazzi Foundry, founded in 1870. It is a first-edition posthumous original.

A second statue, attributed to three Greek sculptors and titled “Laocoön,” also is a first-edition posthumous original and priced at $21 million. The statue is one of the most “famous ancient sculptures ever since it was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican, where it remains.” according to Chiurazzi. “The figures are near life-size and the group is a little over 2 m (6 feet 7 inches) in height, showing the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents.”

It is believed to be the creation of three Rhodian sculptors – Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodorus – and stood briefly in the palace of Roman Emperor Titus sometime around 79 to 81 A.D. Michelangelo played a role in its restoration.

The third piece is titled “Pieta” and depicts Mary with the body of Christ in her lap after the crucifixion. Michelangelo completed it in 1500, and it was on display at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when, in 1972, a crackpot Hungarian jumped the rail and attacked it with a hammer. After 10 months of restoration and repair, it returned to public display, but this time within a bulletproof glass enclosure at the Basilica. It will be considered a second-edition posthumous original with an asking price of $995,000.

Now the Gold Star Kids need to find buyers. They will do that, Harris said, by approaching wealthy individuals who could purchase one or all of the pieces and put them on display in museums or churches.

And when that happens, Gold Star Kids will be able to bring some ecstasy to children of families that have endured their share of agony.