In 1904, a young carpenter, stone mason and flute player set out on foot from rural Romania to reach Paris and become one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century.
Some 30 years later, Constantin Brancusi returned to the town of Targu Jiu on the edge of the southwestern Carpathians to create the only monumental sculptures of his career as a tribute to his homeland's fallen World War One heroes.
But the works gracing the town's river-front park and hailed as one of the world's most precious art treasures now lie broken or covered up after post-communist Romania's unsuccessful attempt to restore them.
For more than a year, the stone pieces have been dismantled and the monumental Gate of the Kiss has been covered with plastic and scaffolding, as authorities try to resolve a wrangle with a local company that undertook the restoration but failed to deliver.
"I hope the restoration is completed soon and the sculptures take their rightful place in our country," Deputy Culture Minister Ioan Opris said. "They are unique. Brancusi did not make any other open-air sculptures."
The Jiu river flows by the leafy park, where a visitor can walk under the 5m high Gate of the Kiss, through the Corridor of the Chairs to the Table of Silence -- an Arthurian-inspired round table surrounded by 12 stools.
None of the hour-glass shaped stone stools are in place -- they were removed in May 2002 for cleaning, structural improvements and repairs to their surface, local officials said.
"The restoration was to be completed by August 2002," said Constantin Cretan, a spokesman for the Targu Jiu town hall. "But there were problems because the company did not have enough specialists to carry out the project."
The firm was dismissed after finishing 30 percent of the work, said ministry director Paula Olteanu, who heads the project.
"There is no time to lose. We are very aware of the fact the delay works against the stone," she said.
Partly funded by the World Bank, the project is estimated to cost about US$100,000. It has now been assigned to an Italian firm that was expected to complete it later this year, Opris said.
Local officials say thousands visit the park every weekend, including many foreigners, who come to this remote industrial town just for the Brancusi sculptures.
"Visitors are not happy. They spend money to come here but they don't see the works as they really are," Cretan said.
For the time being, the only work a visitor can enjoy is the Endless Column. Hailed by UNESCO as a "masterpiece of modern art," it was taken down, restored and reassembled in 2000.
About 1.5 km from the park, the 30m high stack of 15 rhomboid polished metal cubes, which Brancusi viewed as a "stairway to heaven," appears to almost float in the sky.
Romania's post-war communist rulers branded Brancusi a "representative of decadent art" and declared him persona non grata. They tried but failed to demolish the column, which came to symbolize the Romanian people's perseverance against hardship, in the 1950s.
During decades of communism, the complex was badly neglected. Urban development raised visual obstacles between the column and the park, intended as a unified complex, and time eroded the surface of both the stone works and the metal column.
The World Monuments Fund listed the sculptures among the world's 100 most endangered sites and the World Bank contributed to the column's US$2.6 million restoration.