Ancient Roman Sculpture Likely Looted During WWII Turns Up at Texas Goodwill

Experts are debating who the bust portrays, but they agree on one thing—a thrift store is an unusual spot to find a millennia-old statue

Ancient Roman bust of an unidentified man
Antiques dealer Laura Young purchased the bust at Goodwill for $34.99. Joel Salcido / San Antonio Museum of Art

An antiques seller for about a decade, Laura Young knows what it means to sift through piles of objects in the hopes of finding one unique item. But an August 2018 trip to a Texas thrift store exceeded her expectations on almost every level.

When Young first noticed a marble bust under a table at an Austin Goodwill store, she was captivated by its aesthetic. The sculpture weighed roughly 50 pounds.

“Clearly old,” she tells Matt Largey of KUT 90.5. “The hairstyle … looked kind of Greco-Roman. And he was gorgeous—he looked great.”

The bust’s price was hard to miss. It was stuck on his upper cheekbone. At $34.99, which Young notes is “a pretty high price for Goodwill,” she decided it was worthwhile for such an unusual find.

Young would soon learn just how unique the statue was. She reached out to academic experts to learn more about the statue and eventually got a definitive answer from a Sotheby’s consultant, reports the San Antonio Express-NewsTimothy Fanning. His verdict: The bust was from ancient Rome.

It dates to the Julio-Claudian-era, which spans the start of Emperor Augustus’ reign to the end of Emperor Nero’s, or 27 B.C.E. to 68 C.E.

The object is special mainly because of where it was found, says Stephennie Mulder, an art historian at the University of Texas at Austin, to KUT.

“There are plenty of Roman portrait sculptures in the world. There’s a lot of them around. They’re generally not in Goodwills,” Mulder says. “ … [T]he object itself is not terribly unusual, but [its presence at the store] is what makes it extraordinary.”

Scholars are divided as to whom the bust actually depicts. Some say it portrays Drusus Germanicus, a Roman commander who lived in the first century B.C.E. and was the younger brother of Tiberius, the second Roman emperor.

Others speculate that the statue is a likeness of Sextus Pompey, son of Pompey the Great, who formed the first triumvirate along with Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus. When Caesar became hungry for more power and refused to dismantle his army, he crossed the Rubicon river with his troops and challenged the elder Pompey to a civil war. Caesar eventually emerged victorious, and Pompey the Great was killed. After his father’s death, Sextus continued the battle, but he was eventually executed.

“It’s a portrait of an outlaw, a sort of enemy of the state,” Lynley McAlpine, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the San Antonio Museum of Art, tells the Express-News. (She’s in the Sextus camp.) “It’s unusual to have something like this. It’s also interesting that someone preserved it and had it in their collection as a personal enemy to the emperor. That could be dangerous to display something like that.”

The Pompeiianum in Aschaffenburg, Germany
The Pompeiianum in Aschaffenburg, Germany Sven Teschke via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Little mystery surrounds the provenance of the bust. Records show that the marble statue was once housed at the Pompeiianum, a reproduced Roman villa in Aschaffenburg, Germany. The project was undertaken by Ludwig I of Bavaria and finished in the 1840s.

A lover of history and the arts, the king was a rabid collector of ancient statues. Like many of his era, he was inspired by early excavations of the villa’s namesake, the doomed Italian city of Pompeii. The estate’s decor included plenty of statues—including, apparently, the bust that would one day sit on a thrift store shelf. It resided in Ludwig’s collection for almost 100 years.

In 1944, its fate changed. During World War II, “the Pompeiianum was heavily bombed and likely was unguarded, so Allied soldiers could walk in freely and take what they liked,” writes the Art Newspaper’s Daniel Grant.

“We know that many of the objects were either destroyed in the Allied bombing campaign or looted afterward,” Mulder tells KUT. “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.”

How the head got to the United States is still a mystery. Young sought records from Goodwill about the person who brought it in, but they had no record of the donor.

Now that the antiques dealer had solved the first question of where the bust had come from, she had another problem on her hands. What should she do with it? She couldn’t exactly keep it in her private collection—though it would certainly make for an entertaining show-and-tell at dinner parties. Though her first thought was to sell it, a lawyer advised against that move.

“U.S. law doesn’t recognize the transfer of title when theft is involved,” Young’s attorney, Leila Amineddoleh, an art and cultural heritage lawyer at Amineddoleh & Associates, tells the Art Newspaper.

Instead, Amineddoleh reached out to Bavarian authorities to come up with an agreement that would get the bust back to Germany, provide a “finder’s fee” for Young and allow the San Antonio Museum of Art to temporarily house the bust.

An Instagram post from Young shows the bust prominently displayed in the museum under a sign reading “A Roman portrait from Germany in Texas.”

Museum officials tell the Express-News that the object’s provenance is certainly different from that of most objects on view: They come from Sotheby’s, Christie’s or specialized dealers, not Goodwill.

The finder herself will have some grieving to do. Young spent several years of her life with the bust placed on a “small credenza close to the entryway of our house.”

“Every time you walk into the kitchen, you pass the head. Every time you walk into the house, he greets you,” she tells KUT. “He’s there. He was a constant presence.”

Young found a small way to keep a piece of the bust with her: She purchased a 3-D–printed copy. The bust still spends his days staring out into oblivion in Young’s home, though perhaps without the same intensity.