A $35 Goodwill Find By A Texas Woman Turned Out To Be A 2,000 Years Old Lost Roman Artifact

Posted by Aleena in History On 7th May 2022
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An antique Roman bust from the first century that had been lost for decades has finally found its way to the San Antonio Museum of Art, thanks to one artist's $40 purchase from a Texas Goodwill.

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You never know what you'll discover in a thrift store, but most people wouldn't expect to find a 2,000year-old Roman relic among the rusty lunchboxes and glass vases.

In 2018, an antique dealer named Laura Young was shopping a Goodwill in Austin, Texas, when she stumbled upon a 50-pound marble sculpture for $34.99. She bought the bust and carried it home since she thought it was interesting.

Laura Young had no clue what she was getting herself into when she discovered a human skull beneath a table at the Goodwill store on Far West Boulevard.

The price on the tag was $34.99. It seemed reasonable.

It was completely white. Made of Marble. It was around 50 pounds.

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"Clearly antique — clearly old," said Young, who runs her own business as an antiques dealer and goes to a lot of thrift stores looking for treasures.

So she went out and got the head, carrying it to her car, strapping it into the passenger seat, and driving it home.

Young wanted to know what the sculpture was, so she researched and pieced it together. She called a London auction company, which confirmed that it was quite ancient – first century old. Another auction firm discovered the head in a catalog of goods from a German museum from the 1920s and 1930s.

It was listed as a portrait bust of a man named Drusus Germanicus.

That was the start of Young's four-year effort to get rid of a 2,000year-old sculpture.

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However, how did a 2,000year-old sculpture of a Roman general's head get up in a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas?

“There are plenty of Roman portrait sculptures in the world. There’s a lot of them around. They’re generally not in Goodwills,” joked Stephennie Mulder, an art history professor at UT Austin. “So the object itself is not terribly unusual, but the presence of it here is what makes it extraordinary.”

We can only guess as to how it ended up under a table at the Far West Goodwill. There are several cases of German-owned art reappearing in unexpected places years after it was last seen.

“We know that many of the objects [in the museum] were either destroyed in the Allied bombing campaign or looted afterward,” Mulder said. “So 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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According to The New York Times, American soldiers returned thousands of stolen art pieces to the United States.

So the skull most likely arrived in the United States in a soldier's duffel bag, maybe in Texas or elsewhere. After then, it's safe to assume it sat in someone's home for decades. It's possible that the person who took it died or gave it away. However, someone decided they no longer wanted it and donated it to Goodwill.

Workers placed a $34.99 price tag on it and put it on the market.

Young inquired at Goodwill whether they had any information on who gave it, but they stated that they do not store such records.

Young had an issue back at home: she owned a stolen piece of ancient art. She was unable to maintain it. She was unable to sell it. And returning it to its proper owners was far more difficult than it appears.

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“At that point, I realized I was probably going to need some help,” Young says. “I was probably going to need an attorney.”

So she hired a lawyer in New York who specializes in international art law, Leila Amineddoleh.

“It was on a small credenza close to the entryway of our house. Facing the TV. So you could see his reflection in the TV when you're watching TV,” she says. “Every time you walk into the kitchen, you pass the head. Every time you walk into the house, he greets you. He's there. He was a constant presence.”

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“He was attractive, he was cold, he was aloof. I couldn't really have him. He was difficult," she says. "So, yeah, my nickname for him was Dennis.”

For a few of years, Dennis sat next to a lamp that appeared like it could be his hand. Young may have been frustrated, but Dennis didn't appear to mind. When you're a 2,000-year-old head, time moves at a different pace.

Finally, they reached an agreement: the Germans would take Dennis. The deal's details are kept under wraps, but the head will be displayed in Texas for roughly a year. The movers came to get him last month.

“It hurt a little bit. It was bittersweet. Like, it's nice that there's a resolution to it and that it's working out for the best,” Young says. “It'll be a little bittersweet to see him in the museum, but he needs to go home. He wasn't supposed to be here.”

 

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Dennis will be on display in the San Antonio Museum of Art, which already has many Roman artifacts.

“It actually ended up being a really, really good fit. He's just right down the road,” Young says.

“It’ll be in the company of other objects like it, although I think when you look at it, you can see what a particularly nice example of a portrait it is in that context,” says Lynley McAlpine, a curatorial fellow at the San Antonio Museum of Art.

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Regardless, Dennis will be shown in San Antonio until next summer, when he and several other pieces will get packed up and sent back to Germany. After that? Who knows.

In a way, Dennis will always be with Young. Before she let him go, she had a half-size copy of him 3D-printed.

“I do have a collection of busts at home," she says. "So he's with my other heads."

Young still goes to Goodwill looking for treasures — but she may never find one quite as special as Dennis.

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