An art collector in Austin struck gold while looking for hidden gems at a local thrift store.
In 2018, Laura Young went to Goodwill, where she saw a bust underneath a table. She thought it was a good find and purchased it for $34.99. However, she had no idea just how good of a find it was.
Young spent the next several years trying to determine the sculpture’s origins.
Her journey began with Austin’s University of Texas campus, where she spoke to art history experts, followed by calls to other experts and auction houses around the country.
When she got her answer, she learned she had gotten the piece at quite a discount: experts confirmed it was an authentic bust from Ancient Rome.
Jörg Deterling, a consultant for Sotheby’s Auction House, estimated that the sculpture came from somewhere between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD.
After more investigating and a phone call to German art historians, the history of the 2,000-year-old bust began to be revealed.
According to experts, the piece once belonged to King Ludwig I of Bavaria and was displayed in Aschaffenburg, Germany. The king’s collection was housed in the Pompejanum, a full-size replica of a villa in Pompeii called the House of the Dioscuri that he commissioned in the 1840s.
Art historians suspect the sculpture depicts a son of Pompey the Great (106–48 BC), who Julius Caesar defeated in a civil war.
Approximately one century later, allied aircraft bombed the city of Aschaffenburg during World War II, severely damaging the Pompejanum. Soon after, the piece went missing.
Due to the increased military presence in the years that followed, experts theorize the piece could have been brought to Texas by a soldier when he returned home from the war. It remained in obscurity until Young discovered it.
“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],” said Young. “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 Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces agreed that the sculpture could be shown by the San Antonio Museum of Art until 2023 as part of the deal to return it to its proper home 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, the museum’s director.