Ancient Roman bust bought for $35 in Texas restituted to Germany

An ancient Roman bust which was purchased at a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas, five years ago for $35 is heading back to Pompejanum, a Pompeii-style villa in Aschaffenburg, Germany. The bust vanished from Pompejanum during the Second World War.

Laura Young, an antique store owner, purchased the bust five years ago. She told CNN, “I was just looking for anything that looked interesting […] it was a bargain at $35 – there was no reason not to buy it”. She contacted specialists and auction houses, thinking that it was likely worth more than the small sum she paid for it. Young explained that “my husband and I were on a road trip when I got an email from Bonhams confirming the head was indeed ancient Roman, but without provenance they could be of no further assistance. Soon after that, Sotheby’s got in touch.”

A specialist used a database to work out the object’s provenance and realised that the bust had been recorded in photographs in the Pompejanum in the 1930s. Pompejanum is a villa which was built in the 1840s by King Ludwig I of Bavaria. It is a replica of a house in Pompeii, the so-called House of Castor and Pollux. During the Second World War, Pompejanum was heavily bombed and the bust subsequently vanished, although no-one realised it was missing until the 1960s when the villa was restored and reopened. It is not clear how the bust ended up in Texas, however it has been speculated that a US soldier stationed in the area may have taken it.

The bust is currently on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) as part of their current exhibition Roman Landscapes: Visions of Nature and Myth from Rome and Pompeii, and when that exhibition closes on 21 May it will be returned to Germany. Lynley McAlpine, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the museum, said that the bust is believed to be of Sextus Pompey, a Roman military leader and son of Pompey the Great who was an ally, and then enemy, of Julius Caesar. A museum spokesperson said that “upon its return, the portrait will either go back on display in its original location at the Pompejanum in Aschaffenburg, or at the Munich Glyptothek with the rest of Ludwig I’s collection.”

Emily Ballew Neff, director of SAMA, said in a statement that “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.” Laura Young tried to track down the person who donated the bust to Goodwill, and spoke enthusiastically about the role she played in the bust’s history: “I’m glad I got to be a small part of [the sculpture’s] long and complicated history […] and he looked great in the house while I had him.”

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