Artist David Ascalon has designed dozens of sculptures in his career, but one of them, he said, stands out: a silver spire that juts out of a grassy park in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Etched into the sculpture’s granite base are the names of the 14 most notorious Nazi concentration camps from World War II.
A Harrisburg Jewish group commissioned the sculpture nearly two decades ago as a monument to its people at large, but the Israeli-born sculptor said it has a more private meaning as well—it is a monument to the four grandparents, two uncles and other relatives he lost in the Holocaust. He called it one of his proudest creations.
That sense of personal attachment is the foundation of a legal complaint filed by Mr. Ascalon, who has a studio in New Jersey and lives part-time in Hampton Bays, against the Jewish group that hired him to design and build the monument in 1992. The group, he is alleging, has since altered the statue in a way that undermines its very meaning, and has even scratched his name off its base.
At the heart of the lawsuit, which Mr. Ascalon filed in federal court in July, is the idea that artists retain some degree of intellectual ownership over certain works, even after they no longer own them physically. In the process of making his case, Mr. Ascalon’s attorney has cleared the dust off a rarely cited congressional act from 1990, which he said established the “moral rights” of artists in the United States and has so far sparked only “a handful” of cases.
“These cases do not get litigated often, but when they do they always present a very interesting fact pattern, for sure,” said Mr. Ascalon’s attorney, Jason B. Schaeffer of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Mr. Schaeffer said he has never before argued a case related to the law, which is known as the Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA. His client is seeking an unspecified amount of monetary damages and demanding that his work be restored, according to the lawsuit.
“They’ve been willing to speak with us, and we’re hopeful and optimistic that the case will be resolved,” Mr. Schaeffer said of members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg.
Jay Steinberg, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg, wrote in an e-mail that the memorial fell into “serious disrepair” over time and his group initiated a $24,000 restoration project in 2006. The lawsuit states that the federation hired someone else to repair the memorial.
“The Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg is hopeful and confident that any differences with the artist will be calmly worked out,” Mr. Steinberg wrote in the statement. “In fact, we already have met with the artist’s representatives and those discussions have been productive.”
The roots of the battle date back to 1992, when the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg, a nonprofit group, chose a design by Mr. Ascalon for a Holocaust memorial that was to be built in Riverside Park, overlooking the Susquehanna River. Mr. Ascalon was selected out of a pool of 40 artists from around the world, according to a copy of the litigation. The artist said he was paid $35,000 for his creation.
The sculpture that was completed in 1994 is rife with symbolism, as Mr. Ascalon described it. The spire is set in a shallow depression—an allusion to a psalm about man crying for God “out of the depths,” the artist explained. The granite stones that make up the sides of the berm were imported from Jerusalem. Six pieces of granite, each in the shape of the Star of David and each smaller than the one below it, form the base of the sculpture; the stones represent “all ages of the victims of the Holocaust,” according to Mr. Ascalon.
The most central symbol, according to the artist, is the dynamic between the spire itself and a winding piece of metal wrapped around it, which resembles barbed wire. The spire is made of pristine stainless steel, while the spiraling ring around it was originally made of a type of steel that is designed to weather and rust. The shining tower represents the Jewish people, and was meant to give viewers a sense of “eternity or solidity,” while the rusted serpentine shape around it was meant to represent Naziism.
“The fact that it’s rusted and ugly, that represents the travails that occurred,” said Mr. Ascalon, who lives in his Hampton Bays home three or four days each week, often flying into Gabreski Airport in Westhampton in his Piper Cherokee Six. He called the contrast between the two types of steel “the most significant thing about this sculpture.”
In 2003, members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg contacted Mr. Ascalon and told him the sculpture was falling into disrepair, according to a copy of the lawsuit. Mr. Ascalon said he offered to restore the sculpture for just the cost of the materials, but the talks stalled, and Mr. Ascalon went without hearing from the federation for about a year, according to the lawsuit.
“It did not go well,” Mr. Ascalon said of the negotiations regarding the sculpture’s restoration. “We did not come to an accommodation.”
In 2005, an attorney for the federation sent Mr. Ascalon a “cease and desist” letter demanding that Mr. Ascalon stop “referencing” the memorial, according to the lawsuit—an order that Mr. Ascalon said confused him.
Finally, in 2007, Mr. Ascalon’s son, Eric Ascalon, was in Pennsylvania on business and decided to visit the memorial. According to the lawsuit, he was stunned to find that the rusted spiraling ring around the spire had been replaced with a stainless steel version, and his father’s name had been removed from the base with a grinder.
“I guess my blood just boiled over,” said the younger Mr. Ascalon, an attorney who serves as the general manager of Ascalon Studios in West Berlin, New Jersey. “I just couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely stunned that they would do such a thing.”
Mr. Ascalon said he did not know why the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg altered his sculpture, and his attorney declined to comment on a possible motive. Harvey Freedenberg, the attorney representing the federation, did not return calls seeking comment.
Mr. Ascalon said he was “fuming” over the alterations. “An artist does things from the heart, and this is really—it just goes against everything that I believe in,” he said.
Eric Ascalon said he thinks the federation altered the sculpture as a result of some miscommunication that happened over the years regarding the negotiations about the repairs, although he said Ascalon Studios was cooperative throughout and the discussions never became “adversarial.”
“Maybe some wires got crossed over there, maybe when the new council took over,” he said. “The communications weren’t clear, I guess, that we were willing to do this.”
Mr. Schaeffer said the alterations violate his client’s rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act. The law, he said, protects only “certain recognized pieces that have reached a certain stature,” not, for instance, a painting hanging in someone’s home.
The lawsuit is also timely, as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Visual Artists Rights Act, according to both Mr. Schaeffer and Eric Ascalon. Mr. Ascalon said the idea of moral rights for artists has its roots in Europe, where artwork has long been considered an “extension of the artist,” granting artists a degree of intellectual ownership.
“That’s a right that has been recognized in Europe for centuries and really only came about to be recognized in the U.S. 20 years ago when VARA was passed,” Mr. Ascalon said. “So it’s very interesting and the thing is artists here don’t really, for the most part, know about this.”