Auction of Heisman Trophy Original Inspires Gift by Sculptor’s Family to NYC High School

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The auction of a work of art by a beloved scuplture teacher begets a gift to the school where he taught.

Sculptor Frank Eliscu may have been best known as the man who designed and created the Heisman Trophy, but to graduates of the High School of Art and Design (formerly known as the School of Industrial Art) he was a beloved and revered art teacher.

The original plaster cast of the famed college football trophy is set to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s on Saturday, December 10th, and is expected to fetch $200,000 to $300,000. The school where Eliscu taught for over 30 years has no work by their famous teacher and could never afford to buy the signed and dated plaster cast of the trophy. “We would have loved for a philanthropic bidder to buy the piece and donate it to our school,” said Alumni Association president, Yvonne Fitzner. “But we are being blessed with a special gift from his family.” Indeed, upon learning that the public high school had no memento of the man whose creations grace museums and institutions across the nation, the Estate of Frank Eliscu will be donating a slate and a sculpture – representing his life’s work – to the High School of Art and Design for a permanent exhibit.     

The works of art will arrive in January and a reception will be held in the school’s Kenny Gallery, to honor the late sculptor and teacher. Norma Banas, Eliscu’s daughter, who is retired and lives in Florida, hopes to attend. She has recently established a website that will contain a listing of all his major commissions, with information as to location, date commissioned, media and size, as well as photos. (The website, http://www.frankeliscu.com, is the only official Frank Eliscu website.) She is also contemplating a book on her late father.

The students and faculty of the High School of Art and Design are elated by the prospect of receiving the priceless works of art being donated by Frank Eliscu’s family. They plan a field trip to Sotheby’s to view the Heisman plaster cast at the pre-auction exhibit during the week of December 5th through 9th. Alumni president Yvonne Fitzner will be attending Sotheby’s reception on December 8th and will also be present at the auction on Saturday, December 10th. “I’d love to know who the winning bidder will turn out to be. Perhaps Donald Trump? Or alumnus Tony Bennett, who studied with Mr. Eliscu. Or our mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg? After all, his middle name is Rubens,” she added with a smile.

Biographic Information

Frank Eliscu was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 13, 1912, and grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. He was 23 years old, a graduate of Pratt Institute and a National Academy Prize winner when, in 1935, he was commissioned to design a trophy for the Downtown Athletic Club. Originally called the DAC trophy, it was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy when the DAC’s athletic director, John Heisman, passed away a year later.

Eliscu’s military records state that he was a teacher of “design, camouflage and industrial modeling” at the School of Industrial Art, from 1936 through 1942, where Tony Bennett was one of his students. He served in the Army during World War II, spending the early part of the war stationed in Virginia, where he made maps and models for the Allied Invasion. He was later transferred to a medical unit at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. By then a sergeant, he assisted in the plastic surgery work of cutting cartilage to be formed into noses and chins and developed a technique of tattooing missing facial parts, such as ears and eye-brows, and coloring in scar tissue.

Eliscu’s personal papers from the Board of Education indicate he did two years of probationary teaching and received his permanent appointment, signed by principal John B. Kenny, in 1946. He retired from the High School of Art and Design on December 1, 1972. He became a member of the National Academy of Design in 1967, and from 1967 to 1972 was president of the National Sculpture Society.

While the Heisman was Frank Eliscu’s best-known work, he created many larger bronze sculptures for banks, office buildings, libraries and houses of worship. His tallest creation, "Cascade of Books," is a five-story bronze screen that was installed above the entrance to the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. He also designed the inaugural medals for President Gerald R. Ford and Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, the state gift for the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, engravings for six glass works produced by Steuben, two pins for Tiffany & Co., and many more wonderful works of art.

The plaster cast of the Heisman Memorial Trophy, which is being auctioned at Sotheby’s on December 10th, remained on Frank Eliscu’s desk until his passing. He died on June 19, 1996, in Sarasota, Florida.

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