What would you do if you accidentally purchased a 2,000-year-old Roman bust? In 2018, art collector Laura Young was shopping for something interesting at a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas when she came across a bust of a man on the floor beneath the table. She purchased the piece for $34.99 and took it home with her. A photo of the bust after she bought it shows it buckled up in her car, a yellow price tag still on its cheek.
Upon studying the bust closer, Young noticed that its marble surface was quite worn and old, triggering an impulse to know where it came from. Over the next few years, she consulted with auction houses across the country as well as art history experts at the University of Texas. Her quest for answers eventually led her to Jörg Deterling, a consultant for the fine arts brokerage Sotheby’s, who managed to identify the bust as a piece once housed in a German museum before World War II.
Deterling connected Young with German authorities, who informed her that the bust she bought for $35 was actually 2,000 years old, dating from the late first century BC to the early first century AD. Although unclear who the bust is supposed to be of, some art scholars say it’s of the son of Pompey the Great, a Roman general and statesman who was defeated in civil war by Julius Caesar, while others theorize it’s of Drusus Germanicus, a famed Roman commander.
In a past life, the bus belonged to king Ludwig I of Bavaria, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was part of a full-scale model of a house in Pompeii that he built. Called Pompejanum and located in Aschaffenburg, Germany, the model house stood for nearly 200 years before it was severely damaged by Allied bombers during World War II.
The bus will be on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art until May 21, 2023, where it will then return to 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, director of the San Antonio Museum, in a statement.
As the United States army had a base near Aschaffenburg during the war, it is likely that a Texas soldier took the bust before returning home. While excited to learn of the it’s origins, Young admitted parting with the bust was bittersweet. "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."
Asia London Palomba
Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy. In the past, her work on culture, travel, and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura, The Christian Science Monitor, and Grub Street, New York Magazine's food section. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.