Texas woman pays $34.99 for priceless Roman statue

Texas woman pays $34.99 for priceless Roman statue

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Laura Young was looking for treasures in her local goodwill in 2018 when she spotted it – a white sculpture among trinkets and secondhand items. Acting on a hunch, she touched the bust to confirm that it was not a cheap plastic counterfeit. It was cold, heavy and marble.

“It’s the real deal. You can feel it,” she told The Washington Post.

Young, who works full-time as a freelance antique dealer in Texas, suspected the bust — depicting a downcast, straight-faced man lit only by the yellow $34.99 price tag on his cheek — was far more special than his humble environment thrift store offered.

Young, 43, bought the sculpture, strapped it to the passenger seat of her car and drove home to begin her research. With the help of experts, she would discover over the next few months that the bust was carved around 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome, purchased by a Bavarian king in the early 19th century for display in what is now Germany and looted at the end of World War II.

The statue’s journey from 1940s Germany to a thrift store in Austin more than 70 years later is still a mystery.

The present and the future of sculpture are clearer. It is now on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art as part of a deal Young and his lawyer made with the bust’s rightful owners – the government of Bavaria, a German state. He will remain there until 2023 before returning to Germany after almost 80 years of absence.

Laura Young, an antique dealer from Texas, bought a 52-pound bust from a Goodwill store for $35 in 2018. It turned out to be a 2,000-year-old Roman artifact. (Video: Laura Young via Storyful)

But Young knew none of that on Aug. 13, 2018, when she deputized for a Goodwill Boutique employee to carry the 52-pound bust to her car. In direct sunlight, she could see her rough diamond better – it was old and dirty, but even where it had been broken the repairs were of high quality. The anonymous’s hair was in the Greco-Roman style she had seen on other Roman statues.

Upon returning home, Young began her research by searching Google for “Roman marble bust.”

“All these heads are sticking up and they look like this head,” she said.

Still, Young wondered if it was an antique reproduction. She photographed the bust and sent the images to several auction houses and art dealers. In about a week, Bonhams and Sotheby’s confirmed his hunch: the bust came from ancient Rome.

Young continued to dig into the statue’s past, even as the piece itself became a fixture in his home. At the start of what would turn into a years-long stint, Young and her husband named their new guest “Dennis” after the narcissistic bag on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” one of their TV shows. favorite television. Like its full-bodied namesake, the bust was detached, indifferent.

“He’s cool, he’s aloof — no emotion — maybe a little sociopathic,” Young told The Post.

Meanwhile, young enlisted researcher Jörg Deterling, who discovered that the home of the bust was the historic Pompejanum building in Aschaffenburg, Germany, which Bavarian government officials confirmed. The subject of the bust has not been definitively identified, but art experts say it could be Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, a Roman military commander, or a son of Pompey the Great, a man of Roman state and general.

“We don’t know who it is,” Jessica Powers, acting chief curator of art from the ancient Mediterranean world at the San Antonio Museum of Art, told Art Newspaper.

In the 19th century, King Ludwig I of Bavaria purchased the bust at a party at which he gobbled up works of art and commissioned major museums, an effort to rival major European capitals including Rome and Paris, according to Amineddoleh & Associates, the law firm representing Young. This push included the construction of the Pompejanum, a replica of a Roman townhouse in Pompeii.

There, the bust existed for more than a century of history when Germany became a modern nation-state in 1871, became a preeminent European power, lost World War I and devolved into a depression. economy that would give birth to the Nazi Party and lead to World War II.

The war did not spare the Pompejanum. The museum was heavily bombed by Allied forces during World War II, destroying much of its collection, according to the law firm. As the Nazis crumbled, the bust was looted. Given where Young found it, the sculpture was likely looted by a U.S. military or someone who eventually traded it in, according to Amineddoleh & Associates.

Either way, there’s no doubt that the Bavarian government still holds the legitimate claim to the bust, which put Young in a tough spot. She’d made the score antique dealers dream of, paying $35 for a priceless artifact she couldn’t sell, at least not legally.

After learning that the bust had been looted, Young hired a New York-based art lawyer, Leila Amineddoleh, who began working with the Bavarian government. Negotiations bogged down under the weight of government bureaucracy and then the coronavirus pandemic, Amineddoleh told the Post. But late last year the two sides reached an agreement and, according to the Art Newspaper, Bavarian government officials signed the deal late last month.

Under the deal, the Bavarian government will pay Young a finder’s fee in addition to the cost of storing, insuring and shipping the bust to Germany, the Art Newspaper reported. Young and Amineddoleh declined to speak with The Post about the details of the deal, saying it included a confidentiality agreement.

After more than three years, Young no longer has Dennis as a roommate, but she will always be part of the bust’s story, or its “provenance,” art-world jargon for the backstory of a work of art. His role will be recognized on the bust plaque once back in Bavaria. And Dennis will spend a little more time where he returned to the radar nearly four years ago.

Young and Amineddoleh said it was important for Texas to see Dennis, or “Portrait of a Man,” as the bust is known in his San Antonio Museum of Art exhibit. Until it departs for Germany next year, Texans will have the opportunity to view the bust and learn not only about its ancient Roman roots, but also about its more recent past – how the sculpture appeared in a San Antonio art museum thousands of miles away. where he was supposed to be from.

Or at least the reason we know of – Young.

“Some of the most interesting stories in art history aren’t about the objects themselves,” said Amineddoleh. “Sometimes it’s really about how they move and tell other stories.”

Then, Amineddoleh mentioned Young as a case in point.

“She is part of this object, and she always will be.”

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