marble bust with pink backdrop

A woman bought a sculpture at Goodwill for $34.99. It actually was a missing ancient Roman bust.

In 2018, Laura Young thought she found a bargain at Goodwill when she bought a statue for just $34.99. She buckled the 50-pound bust into the backseat of her car and drove home. But when the antiques seller looked up “Roman bust” she realized the piece might be worth more than she initially thought. In fact, the statue turned out to be a priceless historical artifact over 2,000 years old.

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Finding an Ancient Roman Bust at Goodwill

When she first laid eyes on the statue, Young’s first thought was “He looked Roman. He looked old.” But as she carried it to her car, she said, “In the sunlight, it looked like something that could be very, very special.” She was right. A consultant from Sotheby’s later determined the sculpture to be a marble Julio-Claudian-era Roman bust.

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“There are plenty of Roman portrait sculptures in the world. There’s a lot of them around. They’re generally not in Goodwills,” said  Stephennie Mulder, an art historian at the University of Texas. “… [T]he object itself is not terribly unusual, but [its presence at the store] is what makes it extraordinary.” Additionally, Goodwill has no record of the person who had donated it.

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It has taken years for the bust’s authenticity to get verified. Young consulted multiple experts before notifying the German government to return the bust to the Bavarian Administration of State-owned Palaces. That is after the statue spends a year on exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art, which is in Young’s home state. “He’d been hidden for 70 to 80 years, I thought he deserved to be seen and studied,” Young said. 

Young’s attorney Leila Amineddoleh advised Young against trying to sell the bust. “U.S. law doesn’t recognize the transfer of title when theft is involved.” Fortunately, Young will be paid a “finder’s fee”. [2]

Read: Yard-Sale Bowl Revealed To Be Rare Artifact Worth Up To $500,000

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How Did the Bust End up at Goodwill?

However, when the statue was created is unknown, as is how it ended up at a Goodwill shop in Austin, Texas. But at one point, it was displayed in Aschaffenburg, Germany in a model of a house from Pompeii, which is called the Pompejanum, constructed by Ludwig I of Bavaria. The Pompejanum was built from 1840 to 1848, taking inspiration from the excavations of Pompeii, the ancient city buried under ash during a volcanic eruption. But during World War II Allied bombers damaged the Pompejanum and soon after, the bust mysteriously disappeared.

According to the San Antonio Museum of Art, it’s likely a soldier took the sculpture home to Texas. “The Pompeiianum was heavily bombed and likely was unguarded, so Allied soldiers could walk in freely and take what they liked,” said the Art Newspaper’s Daniel Grant.

We know that many of the objects were either destroyed in the Allied bombing campaign or looted afterward,” said Mulder. “Unfortunately, in this case it might have been a U.S. soldier who either looted it himself or purchased it from someone who had looted the object.”

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Who is it?

In the meantime, the San Antonio Museum of Art calls the bust “portrait of a man”; but there are many theories on who the unnamed man might be. Lynley McAlpine, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow, and Roman art specialist speculates the bust could be resembling Sextus Pompey, the youngest son of Roman general Pompey the Great. Pompey the Great had battled against Julius Caesar, a fight continued by Sextus Pompey until he was captured and executed.

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If the bust is meant to be Sextus Pompey “it’s a portrait of an outlaw, a sort of enemy of the state,” McAlpine said. “It’s unusual to have something like this. It’s also interesting that someone preserved it and had it in their collection as a personal enemy to the emperor. That could be dangerous to display something like that.” 

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However, The New York Times reports that the sculpture could be portraying Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus. He was a Roman commander who had occupied German land at one point and the younger brother of Tiberius, the second Roman emperor. 

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A Small Part of Long and Complicated History

The San Antonio Museum of Art states the “portrait of a man” will be on display until May 2023. It used to be on display in Young’s home on a “small credenza close to the entryway of our house.”

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Every time you walk into the kitchen, you pass the head. Every time you walk into the house, he greets you,” she said. “He’s there. He was a constant presence.” For now, Young bought a 3D-printed copy of the bust to occupy the credenza. “Either way, I’m glad I got to be a small part of (its) long and complicated history, and he looked great in the house while I had him.[3]

Keep Reading: Michigan Man Found $43,000 Worth Of Cash In A Second-Hand Couch And Returned Everything

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Sources

  1. “A woman bought a sculpture at Goodwill for $34.99. It was actually a missing ancient Roman bust.NBC. Chantal Da Silva. May 6, 2022
  2. “Ancient Roman Sculpture Likely Looted During WWII Turns Up at Texas Goodwill.” Smithsonian Magazine. Elizabeth Djinis. May 6, 2022
  3. “A woman bought a sculpture at Goodwill for $34.99. It actually was a missing ancient Roman bust.” Phys.org. Jordan Mendoza. May 6, 2022
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