A "priceless" gift has made the holiday season extra-special for the staff of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Garden in Winter Park.
The museum has received a plaster bust of President Woodrow Wilson, the final chapter in a saga of Nazi destruction, Czech patriotism and historical mystery.
For the museum, the one-of-a-kind bust is "historically priceless," said museum executive director Debbie Komanski. It was created from a special mold made from a 1928 casting of the original work by Polasek.
"It was the only one allowed to be made," Komanski said. "After that, they broke the mold."
Polasek, an internationally renowned sculptor, was of Czech descent. He lived in Winter Park until his death in 1965; afterward, his residence was turned into the museum.
Later the Soviets ordered the molds and plaster casts used to create the statue destroyed, and for decades they were feared gone. But a Czech patriot managed to save the cast of the head, stashing it in a warehouse on the outskirts of Prague where it was "hidden in plain sight for many, many decades," Komanski said.
The collaborative efforts of artists and patrons of the arts, including the American Friends of the Czech Republic, Czech officials and the team at the Polasek Museum, worked together to bring the Wilson statue back to life. Museum executives were among the dignitaries who attended the dedication of the new statue — created using that plaster cast — in Prague this year.
Another champion of restoring the statue was Oldrich Hejtmanek, a member of the Cultural Commission of Prague. After his death, his family arranged the donation to the Polasek Museum to honor Hejtmanek.
"We had made it clear we'd like to have it, but we didn't have the financial resources to get it," Komanski said. She found out about the donation through a letter, which stated the bust would be shipped to the museum — a moment she calls "mind-boggling."
The thrill only increased when the precious package arrived.
"Opening the crate from Europe was an electric moment," said museum curator Rachel Frisby. "This sculpture is politically charged and of such world significance that it was commissioned, supposedly destroyed, hidden away for its protection and re-created."
The plaster bust of the 28th president was found in Prague and is now at the Czech National Archives. Visitors to the Polasek, at 633 Osceola Ave., Winter Park, can view the replica and learn more about its intriguing story.
A fervent proponent of democracy, Polasek was devastated by the original sculpture's destruction, Komanski said.
"For us to have a copy of the piece that meant so much to him…" she said. "It's a great moral victory."