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Priceless art in danger at Salvador Dali Museum

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As Hurricane Wilma looms in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, possibly no one is as worried as Joan Kropf.

She is deputy director of the Salvador Dali Museum, which could lose more than $200 million in one-of-a-kind artwork if the storm bears north and hits the Tampa Bay area.

In a converted marine storage warehouse on Bayboro Harbor, the museum holds the largest collection of artwork from the 20th century surrealist painter outside his native Spain.

"We are right on the water, and the water rises [and] the roof [of] the building is a lightweight state-of-the-art roof that could be sucked up by the wind," Kropf said. "It's an absolute nightmare."

If there is a direct hit on the building, the collection of 96 oil paintings, 125 watercolors, 1,500 prints and 100 other pieces including rare books could be wiped out, even if secured. While the collection is insured, she said the works can never be replaced.

Kropf has been keeping a constant watch on the storm set to hit the Florida coast today. And securing the art is no easy task.

While many of Dali's paintings were smaller pieces, a lot of the surrealist pieces are oils on canvases that are as big as 13 feet high and 13 feet across.

Moving one of these paintings to a second-floor concrete vault requires six people to take it off the wall, slide it into a large chamois envelope and put it on a hydraulic easel where it's slid into the waterproof box.

"Moving the large paintings is like managing a sail," Kropf said.

It takes a team of nearly 15 people about five hours to batten down the entire collection. And each time any of the art is moved, it's at risk of damage, as any scrape can mean thousands of dollars in restoration work or worse, she said.

"You don't want to move the paintings too often because they take a jostling," Kropf said.

In the nearly 35 years she has been with the museum, which moved here in 1982 from Cleveland, Kropf has had to move them often.

Last year was particularly stressful. When Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan smacked the area it meant the laborious process of clearing out the collection three times.

The museum is raising money to build a new structure about three miles away, where the collection will be housed on higher floors.

"I'm getting so tired about worrying about hurricanes I can't stand it anymore," she said. "In Ohio all we had to worry about were snowstorms. I've been watching [hurricanes] all year long."

(C) 2005 The Record, Bergen County, NJ. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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