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Old religious works have a redeeming value, owner says

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Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. — Pablo Picasso

Quoting that passage from the famous artist, Anthony Christensen's soul gets to live "dust-free," surrounded daily by pre-20th century paintings, sculpture and woodwork inspired by the force that many believe still stirs men's souls the most: faith.

As owner of Anthony's Antiques & Fine Art, he and his manager, Brett Levitre, regularly visit European art dealers, whose stock in trade is composed largely of Christian-inspired pieces from old cathedrals and churches, many of which have fallen victim to age and obsolescence in a post-modern world.

Christianity has faded dramatically as a social force in much of western Europe, where churches are often converted into government buildings or offices, or simply left to house the memories including full pews and fiery sermons of centuries past.

While historic preservation still has its place there, "not all of them can be renovated," Christensen said, noting many were originally constructed of sandstone and have begun to crumble as the centuries wear on. Consequently, many of their treasures are sold or auctioned off.

They have drawn Christensen and his colleagues to Europe dozens of times, looking for pieces to stock the former home of Salt Lake's First Baptist Church at the northeast corner of 200 South and 400 East. Passers-by, who never have darkened the door of the stately building, have likely wondered what rests inside.

Most who venture in are amazed at the selection — and the sheer size — of some of the works it holds.

A life-size, white marble angel, holding a half-shell that once served as a baptismal font, greets visitors just inside the doorway. Locals familiar with the "Christus" statue at the Visitors Center on Temple Square may be interested to know that the angel came from the Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, where sculptor Albert Bertel Thorvaldsen's original Christus resides.

Carved in Italy, it would have been in the cathedral as the baptismal font for patrons. "The shell represents rebirth" that Christians believe takes place at baptism, Christensen said.

Just steps away, a massive oak cherub sits perched atop an altar that came from a Carmelite Monastery in Belgium. The 16th century cherub once resided atop a column inside the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, The Netherlands. Its enlarged features were carved for observers and congregants who gathered dozens of feet beneath the column it capped near the cathedral ceiling.

Purchased from a dealer in France, it was one of two cherubim removed from the church after World War II. The other resides in the national museum in Amsterdam, Christensen said.

Other life-size religious figures include 18th century gilded statues of St. John and St. Peter from a cathedral in Italy, and a statue of the Old Testament prophets Melchizedek and

Aaron, dressed in their priestly robes. Acquired from Mexico, that work was recently sold, Christensen said.

The size and quality of his collection often amazes first-time visitors who weren't directed to the shop by knowing friends or relatives, he said. They come with at least three questions: "Why is this kind of art available?" "Why do you buy it?" and "Why do you sell it in Salt Lake City?"

"I buy it because it's interesting, and I love it," he said. As to why it's available, he said World War II made it possible to purchase many of the pieces, because many churches were ruined by the bombing, and their treasures were then sold off.

Many wonder at the market for Christian artwork in a state dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sees traditional Christianity as an apostate form of Christ's original church.

"Over the years, many people have wondered what a Mormon boy with Jewish extraction is doing with all these Christian artifacts." Though he sees buyers from across the country and many parts of the world, Christensen said there is definitely a local market for Christian art created before 1830, when LDS Church founder Joseph Smith formally organized the church.

All of his buyers appreciate the fact that much of European art had Christian themes, he said, and they're willing to pay for it.

"If we have it, you don't need it," Christensen said, noting that while there is a ready market for his collection, it doesn't suit everyone's taste. Or their pocketbook. It's all in what people value most, he said.

His focus is quality. While most of the religious art focuses on Christianity — a Russian Orthodox calendar featuring 985 individual saints, an Eastern Orthodox icon of Madonna along with large paintings and hand-carved cabinetwork featuring Bible scenes — he does have at least one piece of interest to Muslim collectors, he said.

A long painting of Guardaia shows a liberal sect of Muslims celebrating Ramadan in central Algeria in 1935. Placed high above patrons' heads, it looks over statues of St. John and St. Peter, along with an elaborately sculpted altar piece from a cathedral in Belgium, featuring two inset sculptures well known to New Testament readers: one of Jesus' birth and the other of Christ in the temple as a boy. Thousands saw that piece during the Christmas season, when Christensen loaned it to a longtime creche exhibit held annually in Midway.

While he can describe the history of every piece in the collection, Christensen's building itself has a storied history, with its stained-glass windows and winding galleries. The LDS Church purchased it when First Baptist Church moved to a different location, and it served as a stake center for several years before it was sold once again to a private investor, who allowed the Utah Symphony to practice there. Williamsburg Savings Bank was the next resident of the building, and it was renovated extensively at that time.

Christensen purchased it when the bank closed, and has been welcoming customers to see his evolving collection ever since. "We enjoy having people come and take a look, whether they buy or not," he said. "Some people come and spend an entire day just looking around."

Some pieces have been around for 10 years, and then three buyers will come in on the same day and all want to purchase them, he said. Other pieces sell within 10 minutes of being displayed.

"This type of art has a redeeming value. So much of what is out there today is banal, and common and vulgar and demeaning. Why should we not surround ourselves with beauty and things that remind us of that which is most beautiful?"

E-MAIL: carrie@desnews.com; smart@desnews.com