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CHICAGO - Like a homeowner musing on whether an armoire in the attic might be a precious antique, school officials in Gary, Ind., began to wonder this month whether a peculiar sculpture squatting in a school cafeteria for 35 years was a lost treasure.
The 12-foot wooden structure was clearly an early version of Chicago's most famous piece of public art, the Picasso in the Daley plaza. And indeed, it was the final mockup for the iconic sculpture.
But local steelworkers built the mockup, not Picasso - an intermediate step between the Spanish master's 42-inch models and the 162-ton steel gift to the city of Chicago.
That makes it one of a kind - and difficult to appraise.
"There'd be a really difficult time trying to establish a value for it," said Brendan Lindberg, general manger of the Doubletake Gallery in Burnsville, Minn., where actual Picassos have been sold on consignment. "It would be difficult to find anything with a similar auction record."
"But with the sentimental value of the item? Throw it all out the window," he said. "It's in the eye of the beholder."
Whatever its value is eventually determined to be, there is growing realization that the work deserves a place in the history of Chicago's most emblematic sculpture.
The wooden mock-up completes the story of how Pablo Picasso donated a three-and-a-half foot maquette, or model, to Chicago, how it was translated into a 50-foot symbol of the city, and how the city thanked neighboring Gary for building it.
It wouldn't be the first time rare and valuable artwork was found in a public school. This year, an abstract painting - "Still Life with Flowers" by Stuart Davis - sold for more than $3 million at Christie's auction house in New York. It was bought by New Trier High School for $62.50 in 1948.
But in a town where steel runs in the blood, the wooden Picasso sculpture's origin at Gary's American Bridge Division of U.S. Steel long has been known.
Still, it wasn't until earlier this month - when a local artist showed up at a meeting with big ideas about the wooden structure and questions for the school board - that school officials started to wonder what it was worth.
Amid school consolidations, budget constraints and dropping student enrollment, appraising the district's art collection was a low priority.
"Right now, we're investigating it," said Andrea Ledbetter, vice president of the Gary Community School Corporation school board. "It would be good for the school system."
Clearly, the sculpture's pedigree makes it important, said Robert Rogal, who has sold Picassos as director of Rogallery in Long Island City, N.Y.
"The question is of valuation," Rogal said.
As with antique cars, show dogs and other rare items, the key to determining the wooden structure's worth is documentation.
If Picasso signed off on it, its value would soar. If keepers of his original 42-inch model, the Art Institute of Chicago or architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill documented approval of the wooden sculpture's dimensions, it would be almost as good. A Picasso family member's blessing would go a long way, Rogal suggested.
The other part of the equation is looking at similar items and the prices they've fetched, said Chicago auctioneer Leslie Hindman. Here, the mock-up is a problem.
"You won't find many comparables to that sculpture," she said. "I don't think anything like that has been on the market."
To civic historians in Chicago, the sculpture's beginning is well known: Mayor Richard J. Daley and architect William F. Hartmann of SOM wanted the greatest artist in the world to fashion a monument for the plaza in front of the Civic Center, now the Daley Center.
Hartmann's visits to the aging legend Picasso in the south of France began in 1963. By 1966, after much gift giving, flattery, and a model of the building, he had an agreement.
The city hired Gary's American Bridge Co. to build it. Engineers started work in November 1966.
To iron out the details of the sculpture before that, a one-quarter scale model - 12-feet-6 inches high - was built of wood, U.S. Steel spokesman John Armstrong said.
"We did make a wooden model," he said. "I can't tell you how it got to where it is."
The answer seems to be on the model itself. In framed and yellowed newspaper clippings from the Gary Post-Tribune, the structure's story continues.
After the full-sized Picasso was unveiled in 1967 in downtown Chicago, the wooden model languished inside the American Bridge plant in Gary.
It was discovered there years later by Parks Byrum, a janitor in the Gary public schools, who told John A. Mohamed, the schools' art supervisor. Mohamed negotiated a donation from Chicago and American Bridge. It was presented in 1970 to Gary Technical-Vocational Center, now the Gary Career Center.
There it crouched against one wall of the school cafeteria as school administrations, the national steel industry and Gary's fortunes declined.
Rediscovering the Picasso-related sculpture has ignited a new conviction to determine what other artwork the school system has. Ledbetter said its unexpected importance could be the tip of a happy iceberg for a district that has had a lot to trouble it this year.
Now, interesting art is popping up all over the schools, she said.
"Some of it is still up, and some of it has been put into a vault for safekeeping," Ledbetter said. Much more may be hidden away in now-closed facilities around the Gary school system.
"We're looking for documents in archives, where it says in school board reports that something was donated by whomever," she said.
In the meantime, she added, "We're still finding a lot of artwork."
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.