Capitol Alert

Broken finger on statue in California Capitol rotunda follows late-night coin toss

This much is not in doubt: Sometime Friday or Saturday, part of a finger from the marble statue depicting Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus in the Capitol rotunda broke off. A tourist discovered the detached digit Saturday afternoon.

What remains a mystery is what caused the finger to fall.

Some have put the blame on the quasi-traditional coin toss that accompanied the end of the legislation session early Saturday morning. Dozens of legislative staffers, lobbyists and others lined the railing on the second floor, trying to lob pennies and other coins into Isabella’s crown. One of the coins, the theory goes, knocked the knuckle of Isabella’s attendant in just the right spot, causing it to snap off.

Tuesday, though, other experts questioned the theory. They said they doubted whether a 2.5-gram penny or even something heavier could break part of a marble statue that has withstood decades of coin tosses, rough-housing students and various bumps during rotunda events. Until this week, the statue’s most serious wound was another broken finger – and that happened after someone threw a firecracker or other explosive at the statue from the second floor.

“There’s no evidence a coin broke off the finger,” said Vito Sgromo, a state building manager and longtime Capitol tour guide who is an expert on the history of the building and its contents. “It could be purely coincidental.”

Debra Gravert, the Assembly Rules Committee’s chief administrative officer, said she also doubts that a coin could have damaged the finger. The statue, she noted, greets tour groups when they enter the Capitol and the ropes around it offer little protection from children intent on touching the marble.

Still, Gravert said, legislative officials may consider new rules to protect one of the Capitol’s most prized artifacts. “When we saw people tossing coins, I went over and told them not to. We had sergeants telling them not to,” she said. “I don’t know if we need to implement a stronger policy.”

The statue, “Columbus’ Last Appeal to Queen Isabella,” commemorates the Spanish monarch’s underwriting of Columbus’ voyage to the New World. The person who commissioned American-born sculptor Larkin Goldsmith Mead to make the statue died before its delivery. But the man’s neighbor, Darius Ogden Mills, a wealthy Northern California banker, bought the statue and donated it to California, and the statue was put in the rotunda in 1883.

Isabella and Columbus were relocated to the nearby Library and Courts building in 1975 as workers began restoring the Capitol. The statue initially was missing from the reopened rotunda in 1982, but lobbying by Italian Americans returned it to the rotunda the following year, Sgromo said.

“It’s become a major historical treasure for the Capitol,” runner-up in significance to the portrait of George Washington in the Senate chambers.

Meanwhile, the practice of tossing coins at Isabella’s crown on the last night of the legislative session started sometime in the 1940s, he said. Legislative sergeants shoo people away from the railings but they invariably return to pitch pennies at the statue some 30 feet below. That’s what happened early Saturday, Gravert said.

The broken finger does not belong to the queen or to Columbus, who is kneeling at her feet. The damaged digit came off a sculpted young page, who stands to the left, holding up a corner of the queen’s skirt.

Robert Foster was on a state Capitol tour Saturday with his adult son, who was visiting from San Bernardino, when the tour group stopped in the rotunda to admire the marble statue. The tour docent was describing the statue’s history and explaining the end-of-session coin-tossing tradition.

About then, Foster recalled Monday, the docent exclaimed, “Oh my God, the finger’s broken.”

Foster, looking down at the enclosure circling the 1883 statue, saw a white object, only an inch or two long, that at first he thought might be a hearing aid. He picked it up and “sure enough, it was the finger.”

The break was clean, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for general services, which owns the statue. Officials have been in touch with restoration firms and repairs should take place within a couple of weeks. The expense, he said, is nominal.

Whether or not a coin injured Isabella, some question the coin-tossing tradition. “I don’t know of anywhere else where people can throw objects at old artwork that’s valuable. It’s a bizarre thing,” said Foster, a retired elementary school principal. “It’s not intentional (to damage the statue), but maybe that’s a tradition they shouldn’t be doing anymore.”

Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, an expert on the Capitol, had not heard of the damage to the statue when asked about it Monday during the Sacramento Central Labor Council’s Labor Day picnic at William Land Park.

“I don’t quite know how you police that,” Cooley said of the coin-dropping. “But that’s definitely our No. 1 public building. We need to conduct ourselves with respect toward it.”