Texas woman pays $34.99 for priceless ancient Roman statue

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Laura Young was treasure-hunting at her local Goodwill in 2018 when she spotted it — a white sculpture among the knickknacks and hand-me-downs. Acting on a hunch, she touched the bust to confirm it wasn’t a cheap, plastic knockoff. It was cold, heavy and marble.

“This is the real deal. You can feel it,” she told The Washington Post.

Young, who works full time as a self-employed antiques dealer in Texas, suspected that the bust — depicting a downcast, straight-faced man brightened only by the yellow $34.99 price tag on his cheek — was far more special than his humble thrift store surroundings suggested.

Young, 43, bought the sculpture, strapped it into the passenger seat of her car and drove home to start researching. With the help of experts, she would discover over the next few months that the bust was sculpted some 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 sculpture’s present and future are clearer. It is now on display in the San Antonio Museum of Art as part of an agreement Young and her lawyer dela struck with the bust’s rightful owners — the government of Bavaria, a state in Germany. It will stay there until 2023 before returning home to Germany after a nearly 80-year absence.

Laura Young, an antiques dealer from Texas, bought a 52-pound bust at 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 a Goodwill Boutique employee to lug the 52-pound bust to her car. In full sunlight, she got a better look at her diamond in the rough — it was old and dirty, but even where it had been broken, the repairs were high quality. The anonymous man’s hair was in the Greco-Roman style she’d seen on other Roman statues.

After she got home, Young started her research by googling “Roman marble bust.”

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

Still, Young reproduction if it might be an antique. She photographed the bust and sent the pictures to several auction houses and art dealers. In about a week, Bonhams and Sotheby’s confirmed her hunch on her: The bust was from ancient Rome.

Young kept digging into the statue’s past, even as the piece itself became a fixture in her household. Early in what would turn into a years-long stay, Young and her husband dela named their new houseguest “Dennis” after the narcissistic dirtbag in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” one of their favorite TV shows. Like his full-bodied namesake of him, the bust was detached, uninterested.

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

Meanwhile, Young enlisted researcher Jörg Deterling, who found out the bust’s home was the Pompejanum historic building in Aschaffenburg, Germany, something Bavarian government officials confirmed. The subject of the bust has not been definitively identified, but art experts say it may be Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, a Roman military commander, or a son of Pompey the Great, a Roman statesman and general.

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

In the 19th century, King Ludwig I of Bavaria purchased the bust during a spree in which he gobbled up artwork and commissioned major museums, an effort to rival the great European capitals including Rome and Paris, according to Amineddoleh & Associates, the law firm that represent Young. That push included building the Pompejanum, a replica of a Roman townhouse in Pompeii.

There, the bust existed for more than a century of history as Germany became a modern nation state in 1871, emerged as a preeminent European power, lost World War I and spiraled into an economic depression that would give rise to the Nazi Party and lead to World War II.

War did not spare the Pompejanum. The museum was heavily bombed by Allied forces in 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 probably looted by an American service member or someone who eventually traded it to one, according to Amineddoleh & Associates.

Regardless, there’s no doubt the Bavarian government still holds the rightful claim to the bust, which put Young in a tough spot. She had made the score that antiques dealers dream of, paying 35 bucks for a priceless artifact that she couldn’t sell, at least not legally.

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

Under that agreement, the Bavarian government will pay Young a finder’s fee on top of the cost of reporting, insuring and shipping the bust back to Germany, the Art Newspaper. Young and Amineddoleh declined to talk with The Post about the details of the deal, saying it includes a confidentiality agreement.

After more than three years, Young no longer has Dennis as a roommate, but she’ll always be a part of the bust’s story, or its “provenance,” the art world jargon for an artwork’s backstory. Her role will be acknowledged on the bust’s plaque once it makes it back to Bavaria. And Dennis will spend a bit more time in the place where he popped back on the radar nearly four years ago.

Young and Amineddoleh said it is important for people in Texas to see Dennis, or “Portrait of a man” as the bust is known at its San Antonio Museum of Art exhibit. Until it leaves for Germany next year, Texans will get a chance to check out the bust and learn not only of its ancient Roman roots but also of its more recent past — how the sculpture came to be in a San Antonio art museum thousands of miles from where it was supposed to be.

Or at least, the reason we know about — Young.

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

Then Amineddoleh mentioned Young as a case in point.

“She’s part of that object, and she’ll always be.”

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