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ART : Columbus Gift Seen as a Statue of Limitations : Ex-Soviets’ present, a politically incorrect colossus, tries to find a home in U.S.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty, will cost more than $23 million and is in trouble on both sides of the Atlantic.

A colossal statue of Christopher Columbus by Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli, begun five years ago as a Soviet gift of friendship to the American people, is soon to set sail from St. Petersburg to America. All 498 tons of it.

But America has yet to find a home for the politically incorrect statue of its controversial “discoverer,” seen by some as an enslaver of native people.

And some Russians, upon hearing the free-market price tag of the statue--which is to be covered with $18.7 million worth of copper--are not so sure “Big Chris” is a fitting tribute from a nation in the throes of the Great Post-Communist Depression.

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The 311-foot behemoth--six feet taller than Lady Liberty--could wind up as the world’s biggest white elephant.

Tsereteli, 60, is a sculptor to the superpowers. George Bush and Margaret Thatcher dropped in at his Moscow studio. The Lenin Prize winner even handed President Clinton a miniature of his Columbus.

Tsereteli’s sculptures, which tend to be gargantuan, were frequently donated to other countries by the Soviet Union, although his paintings, which some consider superior, have rarely been seen abroad. A 39-foot Tsereteli of St. George slaying a two-headed dragon, titled “Good Defeats Evil” and made of bits of Soviet and U.S. missiles, stands outside the United Nations.

The Columbus statue is one of a pair originally intended to be presented to New York City and Seville, Spain, in time for the 500th anniversary of the explorer’s voyage.

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Showing a visitor around the sculpture garden of his distinctly un-Bohemian mansion that once housed the West German embassy, the artist said Columbus is meant as a metaphor for man’s striving for a better world.

“I decided to create a man who would be searching for a new planet, new art, new science,” Tsereteli said.

But these lofty plans have been derided in the Old World and the New.

First New York City looked the Trojan-size gift horse in the mouth and said no thanks. Then Miami turned the statue down.

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“A Monstrosity We Could Call Our Own,” said the Miami Herald. By this time some of the 2,000 pieces of the gift from the republics of Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine had already been shipped to a Florida warehouse, where Columbus’ head remains.

Now Tsereteli hopes to place the statue in Columbus, Ohio, but both the Ohio governor and Columbus’ mayor have said they will not spend tax dollars to help install it.

But a local group of private citizens, the New World Monument Foundation, hopes to buy a piece of land on which to erect the statue, said the foundation’s Karen Hadley. She suggested the statue would encourage friendship and trade with Russia that would be worth much more than the cost of its metals.

Based on the government list of “strategic” metals approved for tax-free export, Moscow metals-trading companies valued the Columbus materials at more than $23 million.

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Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper published a long article suggesting that the project’s Russian promoters, at least two of whom allegedly have served jail time for fraud, are using the goodwill gift as a cover for exporting excess copper and other metals for lucrative resale on the European market.

If Tsereteli truly wants to make a humanitarian gesture, lawmaker Irina Khakamada said, “why doesn’t he pay all the taxes on materials he’s exporting to help his own people too?”

Tsereteli said he’s too busy creating to read his bad press: “If I had listened to such things, I would never have been able to create anything in my life.”


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