Collector unearths iconic WW II sculpture

(CBS News) There is no more enduring image from World War II than Marines raising the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima as they took control of the Japanese island in a battle that began 68 years ago Tuesday. Most folks have seen the famous sculpture, but few know the story behind it. It's a story of history lost and found.

Rodney Brown started accumulating World War II artifacts when he was 10 years old. His collection of World War II memorabilia is now one of the world's largest.

Rodney Brown is a collector of World War II items. He got the original Iwo Jima sculpture from sculptor Felix de Weldon through a trade.
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But there is one piece in particular that sets Brown's collection apart.

It's the original Iwo Jima monument. It was inspired by combat photographer Joe Rosenthal's picture of five marines and a sailor raising the American flag during a battle that cost 6,000 U.S. lives.

Sculptor Felix de Weldon was so moved he used his own money to create it, finishing the 12-foot statue six months after the battle.

The monument was displayed in front of the Federal Reserve building in Washington during the late 40's. But then the government asked de Weldon to build a 32-foot-tall version -- the Marine Corps War Memorial -- which sits just outside of Arlington National Cemetery.

The smaller one was forgotten until Brown started working on de Weldon's biography in 1990.

"it was in the backyard of de Weldon's studio in Washington, D.C." said Brown. He added: "I said, 'This is a national treasure. We got to get it out of here. And it's got to be restored for the American people.'"

Brown offered de Weldon a trade: the statue for a Stradivarius violin, a silver trophy and some cash. The statue was put on display aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid museum in New York until it was crated for storage.

After the statue was recently brought out of storage, Brown was asked if it ever gets old when he looks at it. Brown said no.

"I'm so happy. It's been in a box for eight years. It's been all crated up. No one could see it."

This Friday, Rodney Brown is putting the statue up for auction. The auction house says it could fetch $1.8 million.

Brown was asked if he'll feel sad parting with his statue.

"But I can't enjoy it," said Brown. "It won't fit in my living room. I don't have an aircraft carrier. The flag has to be passed to a new generation now."

A new generation Brown hopes will honor the sacrifice and valor of an older one, immortalized in this American treasure.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.