Renowned Pennsylvania collector Frederick Koch visited Carnegie Museum of Art in the fall of 1993, on a private tour that included the newly-minted Heinz Architectural Center. As today's legend has it, Koch looked appraisingly around the museum that day, reacquainting himself with its vast halls and galleries, and mentioned some plaster panels the museum "might be able to use." With this singularly modest introduction, Koch made an enormously generous gift of The Chariot of Aurora.

With the arrival of Aurora, known also as The Earth, Four Winds & the Sea, the museum welcomed an elusive celebrity into its midst. The 32 gilded panels, measuring a monumental 18-by-26 feet, were commissioned by France as ornament for the Normandie, the most opulent ocean liner ever to part the seas. Jean Dunand, a celebrated Art Deco scion, fashioned its lacquered relief surface. Muralist Jean Dupas created the design. Adding mystery to magnificence is Aurora's little-known history. Since their 1935 unveiling on the Normandie's maiden crossing, the panels have slipped in and out of public view like a spy on the lam-spawning rumors of loss and destruction.

When Frederick Koch gave the Normandie panels to the Carnegie, he understood what they would mean to the museum's collection. Prior to the acquisition of Aurora, the museum had few significant holdings in Art Deco. In the style, the panels are an embarrassment of riches, identified by an official at Christie's in New York as "the greatest piece of the Art Deco" he had seen in his career.

"The panels have put the museum's modernist art collection-which is represented by a small group of fine paintings and decorative objects-firmly on the map," says Louise Lippincott, curator of paintings and sculpture at Carnegie Museum of Art. She adds that Aurora also bridges the chronological gap between John White Alexander's Apotheosis of Pittsburgh (1905-07) and Stuart Davis' Composition Concrete (1957), deepening the Carnegie's commitment to its impressive collection of decorative murals and friezes.

When commissioned in the mid-1930s, the panels were to be art with a clear function, charged with proving France's supremacy in matters of taste. The Normandie was France's navigational challenge to England, Germany and Italy in a race among nations that had begun a century before. For a time, the Normandie held sway as the fastest, largest, most scientifically advanced paquebot (passenger boat) in the world. In art and elegance, she would never be surpassed.

Today, the term "ocean liner travel" is virtually synonymous with luxury, however, the difference between 1935 and 1996 can be measured by the distance between caviar and fish eggs. Ocean liners like the Mauretania, the Ile de France, and above all, the Normandie-names that remain fixed in public memory- firmly established the image of luxury in the early decades of this century. Ocean liners were a country's ambassadors at sea, carrying proof of advancements in engineering and luxury. If you remember how a country sat transfixed as man first walked on the moon, then you will have some idea of how a steamship easing into harbor on her maiden voyage captured public imagination. At one time, England honored her ship captains with knighthood.

In the birth of the ocean liner, two men figured prominently-Isambard Kingdom Brunel, son the English engineer Sir Marc Brunel, and a Canadian named Samuel Cunard. Had their rivalry not been so fierce, we might still be paddling across the Atlantic. In 1838, Brunel went head-to-head with Cunard competing for a British mail contract to North America. Putting ego before profits, Brunel created the mammoth Great Britain, the first transatlantic boat to be driven by reciprocal steam and screw propeller. While the Great Britain was the first modern steamship, it ultimately bankrupted its original owners. Cunard won the contract and went on to prosper with his government-subsidized fleet of four, formally establishing England's Cunard Lines in 1840.

The advent of the ocean liner coincided with Ireland's potato famine, meaning deliverance for impoverished immigrants and profits for steamship lines. Indeed, from 1840 to 1920, some 35 million immigrants came into the U.S., an influx that didn't slow until after the "three percent" act passed after World War I. Big business drew Germany, France and later, the United States (briefly under the aegis of J.P. Morgan), each building bigger and faster boats of limited comfort. For 30 pounds, a third-class passenger on Cunard got a small, public berth on a vibrating lower deck for sleep. He or she could be assured of almost perpetual motion sickness and bathroom accommodations approximating a civilized barnyard.

In the early days, the luxuries of transatlantic travel were reserved for first-class passengers, and those luxuries were dubious at best. For his celebrated tour of America, Charles Dickens crossed on the Cunard's Britannia in 1842 with his family. One can imagine a grumbling Dickens, incensed at having been taken in by advertising which he claimed promised "a chamber of almost infinite perspective, furnished . . . in a style of more than Eastern splendor." After crossing, he described his stateroom as "a long narrow apartment, not unlike a gigantic hearse without windows." About the bunks, he said that there was "nothing made smaller for sleeping than coffins." Speed, rather than comfort, was emphasized. The journey took about two weeks-a week's improvement over sail power.

In the mid-19th century, the short-lived American Collins Line raised standards by offering rare delicacies-fresh food, carried aloft in a room packed with 40 tons of ice, and a cow that worked overtime to produce milk. Still, in tiny staterooms, passengers were forced to "jump from the bedshelf to get into their pantaloons" and the engine vibration threatened to loosen teeth. Electricity and private baths were becoming more prevalent by the 1880s, and Cunard brought in decorators to embellish its 1893 Campania. Its reincarnation of an English baronial home was advertised as "a silent sermon in good taste."

Cunard's 1907 Mauretania, outfitted with steam turbine engines, reduced passage time to four days and 10 hours, capturing the coveted Blue Riband for speed. Equally significant, steamships entered the age of the floating chateau. Wealthy directors of Cunard planned boats as if they were decorating their own homes-in Louis XVI style. By 1911, in White Star's Olympic, and later the Britannic and the doomed Titanic, the obligatory Louis XVI was expanded to include some Quatorze, Quinze, Empire, Italian Renaissance, and Jacobean touches with Adam fireplaces thrown in. But the best was yet to come.

Goaded by the competition, Albert Ballin, Germany's Hamburg-Amerika Line leader, hired world- renowned designer Charles Mewés, who collaborated with Cèzar Ritz in creating the fabulous Ritz Carlton chain. Mewés was charged with establishing the HMS Imperator (1913), Vaterland and Bismarck as imperial palaces afloat, complete with grand staircases. In a final marketing flourish, the Imperator's chef was the world-renowned Escoffier, who was persuaded to abandon his post at London's Ritz Carlton Grille during the ship's first year. Ever the perfectionist, Ballin prowled his ships at night, making an insomniac's notes of flaws and needed adjustments.

One would think such extravagance would have diminished profits to the point of no return. However, ocean liners were the focus of national pride. Governments subsidized their floating palaces with the stipulation that they would be outfitted as troop ships in the event of war. Indeed, World War I pressed ships into service, later returning many to post-war passenger trade looking to the modern eye like Victorian mausoleums.

Post war, all previous records for opulence were shattered by the French Line, whose chairman Jean Piaz portentously claimed that "to live is not to copy, it is to create." Europe's top designers were put to the task of creating the 1927 Ile de France, a ship memorialized in many popular songs, including Noel Coward's "These Foolish Things." But by 1932, the grander Normandie was on the drawing board.

"She was all thing to all people," wrote John Maxtone-Graham in his 50th anniversary exhibition catalog of the Normandie. "To those who crossed, a superb and chic conveyance; to those who saw her at sea or in port, a mystically awesome silhouette; and to we who can admire her only from afar, she remains unequivocally the ocean liner, reminder of a sweeter, more magical time when transatlantic aircraft were a novelty and the preferred-indeed, the only-means of achieving the far ocean shore was by express ocean liner."

Her striking silhouette was the inspiration of Vladamir Youkevitch, a Russian naval engineer distinguished both by talent and an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. Youkevitch's early career was cut short in Russia by the revolution, and he immigrated to Paris to find work as a laborer at Renault. Through letter writing campaigns, he continued to promote his dream of creating an ocean liner with the prow of a clipper ship-slim at the waterline, hollowed out at the sides, and fanning out to the upper deck.

Youkevitch finally won his chance to prove to Companie General Transatlantique (French Line) that his design would increase speed, and he was given the Normandie. She would be the first ocean liner to exceed 1,000 feet, the first to be driven by turbo-electric engines, and she would make the crossing in a record four days, three hours and two minutes. The Normandie would be the very embodiment of Le Corbusier guidelines for sea- going architecture of "Beauty of a more technical order....Fresh air and clear daylight....Powerful masses and slender elements, contrast between solids and voids...."

In a 1932 press conference hailing the creation of the Normandie, ambitious plans were trumpeted. How would their cosseted passengers keep occupied during their days of enforced indolence? To begin with, the Normandie would have a swimming pool, a gym, a library, a shooting gallery, a children's playroom with a merry-go-round, a nightclub, and a Byzantine chapel, as well as a Rockefeller Center-like shopping promenade featuring a Bon Marche, a flower shop, a beauty parlor and barber shop, and a bookstore/travel agency. In addition, she would carry the first ocean-going theater, after the design of Radio City, which screened first-run movies before they reached the public. Actress Olivia de Havilland's attempt to keep a low profile during her Normandie crossing was thwarted by the release of "Robin Hood," in which she starred as Maid Marian.

In regard to decor, the idea was to turn the competition into tugs. It is hard to imagine, in our own time of cookie-cutter accommodations, that on the Normandie, no two staterooms were alike. The very luxe accommodations were designed by Leleu and Montagnac and included four bedrooms, a dining room, a pantry, servants' bedrooms, five baths and a promenade. Aubusson tapestries, grand pianos, handwrought iron doors by Subes, and sculptures by Gallot would be standard fare, merely whetting the appetite for the Normandie's public rooms.

In the age of flappers, faster cars, and prohibition, Art Deco had surfaced as the prevailing style among the fashionable- and necessarily rich. Art Deco fulfilled a post-war demand for fabulous elegance, and delighted in ornament for its own sake. The style took its name from the 1925 Exposition Internationales des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, which touted the work of decorative artist Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, father of the movement, and his proteges and peers. The style embraced geometric lines and tightly organized patterns, and revived forgotten techniques. For the first time, the decorative arts were elevated to the level of fine art and architecture, and its artisans became celebrities. The most notable of these were given carte blanche in Normandie's public rooms.

A passenger standing on the grand staircase outside the Normandie's Café-grill would have been awed by the vast sweep of the Smoking Room, the Grand Salon, the Gallery Salon, the Upper Hall and the theater, a clear stern-to-bow view obscured only by Baudry's eight-foot-high statue of a peasant, "La Normandie." These rooms-as well as a Lalique-illuminated dining room by Pierre Patout, "longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles," and a Winter Garden of exotic plants and birds-were devoted to decorative excellence and excess.

Descriptions of the Normandie's public rooms linger with particularly awed admiration on its glorious Grand Salon, whose Aubusson carpet remains the world's largest hand-woven rug on record. But it was not the Aubusson that intrigued. The Grand Salon featured massive gilded glass panels by muralist Jean Dupas, illustrating the mythical "Birth of Aphrodite," "The Rape of Europa," "Chariot of Thetis" and "The Chariot of Poseiden." The adjoining Smoking Room was given to the lacquered plaster reliefs of Jean Dunand, depicting sporting themes known as "Man's Games and Pleasures." The sliding walls which separated the rooms, facing into the Grand Salon, merged the extraordinary talents of Dupas and Dunand in The Chariot of Aurora, an allegorical history of navigation.

Originally, Jean Dunand's intent was simply to profit through the decorative arts, and thus to support his growing family, but he stumbled over his genius instead. He began as a sculptor, turning out work that was classical and correct, but not particularly inspired. After completing a decorative commission on a salon in a Parisian home in 1903, he began forging decorative objects in metal. His imagination caught fire when he discovered the ancient Japanese art of lacquer. His folding lacquer screens, bronze and cloisonne vases, and decorative furniture were relics reminiscent of another era.

"You must not think we can't do what they did in the Middle Ages," Dunand said in explaining his dedication. "We're just no longer asked to do it."

No record exists of the nature of this collaboration between Dunand and Dupas, nor can anyone determine why The Chariot of Aurora was not wholly the project of one or the other artist. However, one wonders if the arrangement engendered any rancor between the two. If so, it is not evident in Aurora's serene countenance. As with all his work for the Normandie, Dunand executed the design with loving- some said obsessive-attention to detail, the demands of which hastened his death. Twenty coats of gilded eggshell lacquer, a concoction of Dunand's own invention, would not give the artist the full effect he sought. He set laborers to applying as many as 100 coats.

Dunand moved heaven and literally earth to complete commissions for the Normandie. When his veneer studio on Rue Halle could not accommodate the massive panels at the appropriate angles and height, he dug up the workshop floor and installed a series of ropes and pulleys to position the panels. (During the excavation, workmen unearthed the remains of the Roman aqueduct at Arcueil, which had transported water from the thermal springs at Cluny to Paris.) Rising at 6:00 a.m. and working until 2:00 the next morning, Dunand struggled to bring his commissions in on schedule, and personally assisted at their installation in the Normandie.

The passenger list on the maiden voyage, which departed May 29, 1935, included Madame Albert LeBrun, wife of the French president, and the writer Colette - the first in the steady stream of rich, famous and otherwise celebrated who made the crossing. Fred Astaire, Irene Dunn, Gloria Swanson, Charles Boyer, David Niven, Harold Ikes, Sophie Tucker, Bill Tilden, Joe Kennedy and his sons Joe Jr. and John F., and Bernard Baruch were just a few of the luminaries who began their grand tour of Europe on the Normandie, for to do otherwise was to travel second class. Autograph seekers haunted the piers prior to Normandie's arrivals and departures, and card sharks booked passage hoping to consort with deeper pockets.

"The whole place is like a setting for a ballet," wrote writer Harold Nicholson in a letter to his wife, Vita Sackville-West. "Choruses of stewards, sailors, firemen, stewardesses, engineers. There are also some fifty liftiers in bright scarlet who look like the petals of salvia flying about those gold corridors. That is the essential effect- gold, Lalique glass and scarlet."

The sheer staged spectacle of the Normandie has been likened to the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas coming out of Hollywood at that time, with a comparable cast of characters. Years after her demise, the Normandie would continue to be the glamorous setting for many novels, including Danielle Steele's Crossings. The liner was the venue of Paris to New York, an adventure film about crime at sea.

If beauty and extravagance tempt the gods, then the Normandie was surely irresistible. She would be the meteor of ocean liners, flickering out with the arrival of the Second World War. On August 28, 1939, she pulled into New York Harbor, four days before the Nazi invasion of Poland. The subsequent fall of France would prevent her return to Le Havre. For two years the Normandie languished where she stood at Pier 88 until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Four days later, President Roosevelt seized the ship, intending to troop her for war. In honor of the alliance between America and France, she would become the S. S. Lafayette. As the Normandie, she had made a mere 69 crossings from Le Havre to New York in her four years at sea.

Workmen dismantled her precious Art Deco cargo at breakneck speed and with little regard for safety. On the afternoon of February 9, 1942, a week before she was scheduled to sail to Boston for drydocking, a spark from a welder's torch caught the kapok life preservers temporarily stored in the Grand Salon. Within minutes, the Normandie was in flames. Within four hours, she lay gutted, flooded, and overturned in New York Harbor. Built at a total cost of $60 million, the Normandie was finally sold for scrap at $161,000.

Miraculously, the Normandie's art was saved and returned to France, where much of it, including The Chariot of Aurora, was fitted for the Ile de France following the war. Subsequently, the art was bundled off into Le Havre warehouses, and auctioned off in the early '60s. Pieces of the Normandie slipped away into private hands and collections, with little in the way of records to say what had become of it. For years, it was presumed that the panels of The Chariot of Aurora had not survived the raging fires of the Normandie.

But a New York dealer named Bruce Newman was convinced that the panels survived. In the early '80s he tried repeatedly to make contact with a fiercely private family of European collectors he thought might offer clues, but without success. Finally, a friend made a formal introduction, and Newman visited the family's warehouses in 1984. There he spied "two superb gold lacquer panels" leaning against the wall.

When the owner told him there were 30 more panels, "my heart gave three loud thumps," said Newman, and "another four thumps" when he added that they were masterpieces by Dupas and Dunand from the Normandie. Newman's discovery, however, did not lead to immediate acquisition. He agreed to buy a number of other works at staggering prices before he was permitted in striking distance of his prey. The owner finally relented. Later that year, the Aurora panels passed quietly from Newman into the hands of Frederick Koch.

Like a giant Rubik's cube, the pieces of the Normandie's Art Deco puzzle are constantly shifting positions. As of this writing, Dupas's Grand Salon panels, The Chariot of Poseiden, lie in New York's Metropolitan Museum, Lalique's fountains illuminate Miami's Fontainbleau Hotel, and a set of bronze doors decorate the home of actor James Garner, to mention a few. In December of 1995, another important shift occurred. On reading of Frederick Koch's gift of the Aurora panels in The New York Times, a collector named Michael Chow placed a call to Carnegie Museum. Chow, owner of Mr. Chow's restaurant and an avid Art Deco enthusiast, offered to contribute his bronze and red lacquer doors, the work of Jean Dunand, which had once swung through the Aurora panels and into the Normandie's Smoking Room.

For now, The Chariot of Aurora and her lacquered doors are carefully buried treasure, lying crated in museum storage. Restoration has been assured with a promise of support from the Florence Gould Foundation in New York, and funds are being sought to raise the ceiling of the Scaife Galleries half again the current 14 feet to accommodate the works. When The Chariot of Aurora is unveiled in the galleries in 1998, it will be a commanding presence, transforming the collection by its sheer size and beauty. Those glorious panels will take visitors back to that "sweeter, more magical time" when patriotic zeal gave us nothing less than the Normandie.

Ellen T. White is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh and New York.