Most Important Artwork Of New Century?

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AARHUS, DENMARK - Kurt Westergaard is in hiding from Islamic militants who want him dead. Now, the Danish cartoonist says he's ready to part with the source of his travails, a small ink sketch of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. But first there is the ticklish question of price.

"I would like to think that it has some value," says Mr. Westergaard, the 72-year-old creator of one of the world's most famous cartoons and one that inflamed Muslims world-wide. "It is a symbol of democracy and freedom of expression. I think I should have a little money for this," he says.

The drawing is locked in a bank vault while the cartoonist shuttles between temporary havens the Danish secret police have found for him around this blustery port city. His is by far the best known of 12 Muhammad-related cartoons published in September 2005 by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. But how do you fix the value of something that auction houses won't touch, that museums won't hang on their walls and that still inspires murderous passions?

But last November, the danger became real. Denmark's security service uncovered a group it said had diagrams of Mr. Westergaard's house and apparently planned to slit his throat as he slept. The service offered to send him and his wife on a Caribbean cruise. He declined. "I'm an old man with a stiff neck. I can't bow my head to anyone," he says.
Two weeks ago, Danish authorities said they had foiled a plot to kill Mr. Westergaard in his home. Seventeen Danish newspapers, outraged and eager to show solidarity, reprinted his drawing. Muslims again took to the streets. Iran and others demanded an apology. "I always had a feeling this cartoon crisis would not end," says Mr. Westergaard. "Now I know." [...]

Some Muslims here want the bomb-in-a-turban drawing destroyed. Salah Suleiman, an activist in a mosque that helped whip up the fury over it in early 2006, delights in the artist's troubles and says no amount of money can save him from God's wrath: "He is living like a rat.... He is living in hell already."

Ah, the voice of love and piety.

Mr. Westergaard's wife, a retired kindergarten teacher, has also suggested destruction, by selling the cartoon to a wealthy Arab who "can then burn it in the central square in Mecca." Mr. Westergaard says he likes the idea of getting money from an oil sheik but would prefer the cartoon stay intact and in Denmark.

Mr. Westergaard says he never intended his drawing to rile Muslims, only to mock extremists who push a deformed reading of their faith. But while arguments rage over whether his cartoon is intolerably offensive or an emblem of free speech, there's no doubt of the prominence it has achieved. Though shunned by most major U.S. publications, it has been reprinted widely in Europe, plastered across the Internet and put on T-shirts...

Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish paper that first ran the cartoon, compares it to a famous photo of Che Guevara in a beret and to Andy Warhol's pop-art portrait of Marilyn Monroe. "It is a great cultural icon of the 21st century," he says.

Mr. Lerche, the auctioneer, says it's "pure guesswork" what Mr. Westergaard's drawing is worth. A less-famed Muhammad cartoon sold for around $2,900 in an Internet auction, but that was in late 2005, before the global uproar. The artist in that case donated the cash, which came from an anonymous buyer, to earthquake relief in Pakistan.

In an event last year at the Reagan Library in California, Mr. Rose, the Danish culture editor, saw the cartoons' market value. He autographed posters featuring his newspaper's original cartoon edition, which sold out in minutes for $1,000 apiece.

Money has played a role on the other side of the barricades, too. When Muslims started burning Danish flags and ransacking Danish property in early 2006, extremists joined in a bidding war to get Mr. Westergaard killed. The bounties they offered ranged from a new car to a million dollars.

The cartoonist continued going to work at his small newspaper office, piled with old papers and empty coffee cups. But last November, the danger became real. Denmark's security service uncovered a group it said had diagrams of Mr. Westergaard's house and apparently planned to slit his throat as he slept.

The service offered to send him and his wife on a Caribbean cruise. He declined. "I'm an old man with a stiff neck. I can't bow my head to anyone," he says. Police offered a guard dog. His wife didn't like the idea....

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