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BEVIS HILLIER

Taking Liberties : The Price of Freedom Includes Statue of Liberty Souvenirs

May 25, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

In Italy, the sinuous, serpentine style of the 1890s that we call art nouveau is known as Liberty S . The name has nothing to do with freedom.

In 1875, Liberty's store--named for its founder, Sir Arthur Lasenby Liberty--opened in a little shop on Regent Street, London. The store is still there, but bigger. In the 1890s, Liberty's led the way in popularizing the art nouveau style. Art nouveau became so associated with Liberty's that the Italians named the style for the store.

The British "decadents" who walked around holding lilies and sunflowers, the "greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery" young men led by Oscar Wilde and satirized in the Gilbert & Sullivan opera "Patience," bought their furnishings from Liberty's. So did young married couples who wanted to seem fashionable.

A cartoon by George Du Maurier appeared in Punch magazine on Oct. 20, 1894. It showed a hostess of Upper Tooting--a pretentious suburb of London--saying to a visitor: "We're very proud of this room, Mrs. Hominy. Our own little upholsterer did it up just as you see it, and all our friends think it was Liberty." And the visitor mutters, sotto voce, "Oh Liberty, Liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name!"

Those reverberating words, of course, were first spoken by Jeanne-Marie Roland just before she was guillotined during the French Revolution. They popped into my head as the obvious smart, malicious thing to say about the many Statue of Liberty souvenirs that are swamping the market as the July centennial rededication of the statue approaches.

Some of the souvenirs are kitsch and schlock: nasty little plaster statuettes and cheap-jack key rings that have no official approval. But the Roland line cannot be applied to the grander, more expensive, authorized mementos. For women, the Hermes "Lady Liberty" scarf is one of the best buys. It was to have been issued exclusively in the United States through American Express Merchandise Services, but the demand has proved so great that Hermes boutiques, too, are now carrying the scarf. It is a 36-inch square of heavy silk, woven by craftsmen in Lyon, France, and hand-finished by seamstresses.

The design is beautifully composed: the head of Liberty surrounded by laurels, torches and American flags. It comes in black and gold ("the classic choice for a fur" and, Hermes says, "a fabulous gem-like accent for virtually any outfit"); white and gold, or red, white and blue ("an exuberant touch of Gallic elan"). The price is $100--no more than the usual tag on a Hermes scarf, though you can also buy the scarf framed for $250.

Each scarf is accompanied by a guide to tying and wearing silk squares, "32 pages in color, with many useful ways to wear this accessory." (The mind boggles. Where is it proposed one wears the scarf, other than on the head or the neck? Club Med may well have an answer.) Readers not within reach of a Hermes boutique can order the scarf (shipping and handling charge $4.50; $29 for the framed scarf) from American Express Travel Related Services Co. Inc., P.O. Box 561, Great Neck, N.Y. 11025.

For a much more jokey item, how about a green sponge Liberty "crown" from Past Pluto Productions? "If you can't see it, BE it" is Past Pluto's sales slogan--the "it" being the Statue of Liberty. Crowns of Liberty cost $3 each. They can be bought in Los Angeles at Aah's and at Heaven, or ordered in bulk or singly from Past Pluto Productions, 335 West 76th St., New York, N.Y. 10023. (No shipping charge for single orders.) Elizabeth Tyre, who runs Past Pluto, grew up in the shadow of the statue and is fascinated by its history. She has written a screenplay about "the 21-year epic love story of getting the statue up" that has been optioned by Orion Productions Inc.

There are some handsome souvenirs in china and glass. Villeroy & Boch, official licensees, commissioned two American artists, Sara Eyestone and Renee Faure, to design china plates, boxes, mugs, tree ornaments, crystal vases, whiskey decanters, beer steins, paperweights and dinner bells. A 10x10-inch porcelain plaque ($350) shows Liberty against a gold-glaze porcelain background. The crystal whiskey decanter ($95) is engraved with the head of Liberty and an appropriate inscription. Villeroy & Boch's local office is in the Los Angeles Mart, 1933 S. Broadway, Suite 945, Los Angeles 90007.

The Timex Corp. is celebrating the centennial with two watches (each in men's and women's sizes). One dial shows Lady Liberty's face against a red-and-blue background; the other shows the statue with outstretched torch, in black and gold. Timex hasn't tried anything kitschy like having the arm with the torch as the minute hand, but I'll bet it crossed their minds and that the idea was gravely debated at an "ideas meeting" and rejected. The watches have quartz movements and are water-resistant. Suggested retail prices range between $49 and $99.80, depending on size and design.

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