Open season on the 'Firebird'?

Charlotte's favorite bird is an endangered species.

More than 50 sturdy, reflective tiles around the base of "Firebird," the official greeter of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, are busted.

Lower ones, maybe from accidental collisions with skateboards.

Upper ones, including a hand-sized tile six feet off the ground, are a mystery.

Lech Junetko, an assistant to "Firebird" artist Niki de Saint Phalle, was flown in from San Diego this week to restore the 18-foot-tall sculpture and check how it is holding up overall. He doesn't know what is shattering the tiles but is sure of this: "The glass doesn't break itself."

Installed a year ago in the plaza in front of the Bechtler, the whimsical "Firebird" is covered by thousands of tiles of mirrored glass, bringing a disco-ball effect to South Tryon Street and serving as a popular model for snapshots.

John Boyer, president of the Bechtler, says the museum doesn't know who is causing the damage.

"We have never seen an actual incident, nor have any firsthand accounts been shared with us," he said Monday. "A certain amount of minor damage is to be expected with any public art, but it becomes that much more noticeable in a work covered with mirrors."

Pam Davis, the Bechtler's marketing manager, said there were no plans to erect a protective barrier.

"That would just ruin it. People love to get up close to it and have their pictures taken."

Boyer said the museum is considering installation of different kinds of tiles to protect the base of the sculpture.

Damage limited to arch

"Firebird" is a two-piece sculpture - the 8-foot-tall bird perches atop a 10-foot arch. So far, all broken tiles have been on the arch.

In its long migration, "Firebird" has suffered incidental damage before.

Created by the French-American artist Saint Phalle in 1991 when she lived in San Diego, it has been exhibited in Bonn, Germany; Paris; Basel, Switzerland; Geneva; Atlanta and Chicago.

Andreas Bechtler, the Charlotte art patron whose collection of 20th-century modernists fill the Bechtler museum, saw "Firebird" when it was in Atlanta and was impressed by its crowd-pleasing impact.

When it came on the market in 2006, he snapped it up from a Swiss collector for an undisclosed sum. He thought its bold nature and uplifting appearance would make it a perfect piece to welcome visitors to the museum.

In 2007, after "Firebird" was exhibited in Chicago, Bechtler had it moved to a warehouse in Rutherfordton for restoration. Cracked tiles were replaced, and it was buffed up.

It emerged from packing crates for its permanent roost on South Tryon Street on Oct. 24, 2009.

Repairs aren't difficult

Junetko is training one of the Bechtler's art installers this week on how to replace tiles on the arch.

It isn't complicated - Junetko pries damaged pieces off their backing, traces their outlines, then cuts new mirrors and affixes them.

"Firebird" will be getting some company next spring. Five other outdoor sculptures by Saint Phalle, who died in 2002, are to be displayed across the street in The Green, beginning perhaps in March.

"A lot more glass," said a wary Junetko.

For now, the Bechtler is bird-watching.

"We will continue to protect the 'Firebird' in all ways possible," Boyer said, "and welcome information from the public about any sightings of damage being committed to the sculpture."