Virgin Rebirth

He isn't saying it was a miracle, that an angel of God guided him to a particular place at a particular time and said, "Here she is." He's not saying that at all. But he's not saying it was entirely coincidental, either. After one coincidence leads to another, and then another still, you begin to think things happen for a reason. And you wonder.

December 12, 1995
Fred Kline was late and among the last to arrive at the estate sale in a small village outside Santa Fe. After picking through a garage filled with old clothes, dishes and broken radios, he thought about hitting the road. But he decided to stick around for a while. It was a beautiful day, the celebration day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and anything seemed possible.

As he browsed through assorted household items, he came upon two statuettes of the Virgin Mary. One was wooden, painted, with missing hands and the word "Mexico" carved on one side. "Hmm," Kline thought. "Vintage Thirties." The other was larger, made of stone, with surface designs Kline had never seen on a religious artifact. It looked very old, possibly Mexican, but he couldn't be sure.

Kline picked it up, turned it over, walked from the garage into the sunlight and flicked open his art dealer's magnifying glass. "Where did you get this?" he asked.

The owner said it had belonged to his uncle, who kept it in a bedroom nicho as a personal saint. After the uncle died in the Fifties, the family had packed up the statue and left it in the garage for decades because it was "weird." It could have come from Mexico, the man said, since that's where his family was from, but he knew nothing more. The figurine's next stop would be the flea market.

Kline, an affable man in his late fifties, returned the statue to the table and poked around some more, but he kept returning to the stone Virgin. The more he held it, the more fascinated he became. "Okay," Kline said, and opened his checkbook.

December 12, 1531
To those who believe, this is what happened 467 years ago on a Mexican hill named Tepeyac:

Just before dawn one Saturday, a 57-year-old peasant named Juan Diego was on his way to church when he heard singing and a woman calling his name. He looked up and saw a beautiful woman, dark-skinned like himself, smiling down; her robes were shining like the sun. Speaking in his native language, the woman said she was Holy Mary, Mother of God, and had come to help the people of Mexico, which had recently been conquered by the Spanish. She told Juan Diego to deliver a message to the bishop: Build a church on this spot. Build a church so she may receive prayers.

Juan Diego delivered the message, but the bishop was skeptical and demanded proof. So the peasant returned to the hill, where the woman again appeared and said to come back the next day and he would have his proof.

The next day, as Juan Diego approached the top of the hill, he saw roses covering a landscape normally speckled with thistles, thorns, nopales and mesquite. The apparition told him to gather up the wonderful variety of flowers, return to the bishop, show him the proof and repeat the message. Again, Juan Diego did as he was directed. When the bishop granted him an audience, the peasant unfolded his cloak, his tilma, and the roses spilled onto the floor. And there, on the fabric, an image appeared: Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The Quest
For a guy fresh out of prison for killing another guy in a bar fight, the "Michelangelo of Eskimos" seemed in good spirits. "This crazy polar bear wants to make love to this pretty seal," he chuckled. "What do you think?" The artist held up a pale-green stone carving. "I love it," Fred Kline said.

This was 1976. Kline had just finished researching an article for National Geographic magazine, where he worked as a staff writer. After a treacherous hundred-mile trek toward North America's northernmost national park, Kline decided to take a few days off, indulge in a hobby and learn about Eskimo art. What he learned was this: If you want the best, find Henry Evaluardjuk, drinker of liquor, husband several times over, ex-con (he'd also done time for killing his son, whom he'd caught sleeping with his third wife) and sculptor of unparalleled skill.

Kline spent two days tracking Evaluardjuk through the snow-swept villages of the Canadian Arctic. Evaluardjuk was every bit the rough genius people had described: weatherbeaten, possibly drunk, as happy as one of the mythological beasts in his hand.

"Can I buy that?" Kline asked.
"Okay," Evaluardjuk said. "But you have to pick it up in two days."
Kline returned in two days with $800 and bought the piece. Back home in Maryland, he set the carving on a table and began to wonder exactly what he had acquired. He called art galleries and auction houses in Toronto and discovered that Evaluardjuk's work was quite rare--and rather valuable. One thing led to another, and Kline sold the sculpture to a bank for $18,800. He thought: "Wouldn't it be nice if I could quit journalism and do this for a living?"

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Harrison Fletcher

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