An ancient Roman bust that went on display at a museum in San Antonio, Texas this week has a peculiar backstory: In 2018, the bust was bought at a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas. The buyer, Laura Young, was shopping for objects to resell and had no clue she picked up an artifact dating from the first century BC or AD.
The bust once resided inside a full-scale model of a house from Pompeii in Aschaffenburg, Germany, according to the San Antonio Museum of Art. The display, known as Pompejanum, was built by Ludwig I of Bavaria, and during World War II it was severely damaged by Allied bombers.
The sculpture had mysteriously disappeared after Aschaffenburg was targeted. The U.S. military remained in the area until the end of the Cold War and it is believed an American soldier had the bust and brought it back to Texas, the museum says.
Apparently, Texas is where it stayed for decades, until Young unknowingly bought it.
Young picked up the ancient Roman bust for just $34.99, she told The Art Newspaper. The sculpture is believed to depict ancient Roman commander Drusus Germanicus, the paper says.
An image of the bust after Young bought it shows it buckled into the seat of her car, a yellow price tag stuck to its cheek.
After noticing how old and worn it looked, Young was curious about its origin, the museum said in a news release. She embarked on a yearslong journey, talking to experts in the classics and art history departments at the University of Texas at Austin. She also called auction houses across the U.S.
Ultimately, Sotheby's consultant Jörg Deterling identified the bust and connected Young with German authorities.
"There were a few months of intense excitement after that, but it was bittersweet since I knew I couldn't keep or sell the (bust)," Young said. "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."
The work of art will be on display at the museum until May 2023, then it will be returned to its rightful home, the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces in Germany.
"It's a great story whose plot includes the World War II-era, international diplomacy, art of the ancient Mediterranean, thrift shop sleuthing, historic Bavarian royalty, and the thoughtful stewardship of those who care for and preserve the arts, whether as individuals or institutions," said Emily Ballew Neff, who is the Kelso director at the museum and holds a doctorate in art history.
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