For the past 75 years, a hulking bust of Napoleon has rested on a plinth in the Borough Hall of Madison, New Jersey. And for the past 75 years, nobody paid much attention to it. But thanks to the persistence of a hawk-eyed art history student, the bust was recently revealed to be the work of famed sculptor Auguste Rodin, reports James H. Miller of the Art Newspaper.
Titled “Napoleon enveloppé dans ses réves” (or “Napoleon wrapped in his dreams”), the marble bust is thought to date to 1908. According to Katherine McGrath of Architectural Digest, recent research has revealed that tobacco magnate Thomas Fortune Ryan was the first owner of the piece. He loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it was on display from 1915 to 1929. The bust was subsequently put up for auction and purchased by Ethel Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, an art collector (and kennel club founder) who lived on a sprawling estate in Madison.
Officials believe that Dodge donated a number of items from her personal collection— including the marble bust—to the quaint town’s Borough Hall in 1942, according to the Associated Press. Over the years, rumors swirled that the sculpture was an original Rodin, but officials were never sure of its provenance. “[Dodge] was always bringing things in the building,” Nicolas Platt, president of the Hartley Dodge Foundation, tells Miller. “[T]here was no paper work.”
The Hartley Dodge Foundation owns all of the art on display at the Borough Hall. In 2014, the organization commissioned Mallory Mortillaro, an art history graduate student at Drew University, to help update its catalogue. She quickly zeroed in on the Napoleon bust, which had been sitting in a committee room for decades. Mortillaro stood on a chair, peeped around to the side of the bust that was facing the wall, and spotted an “A”—the first letter, she believed, of Rodin’s signature.
It had taken so long for someone to notice the inscription because, as McGrath of Architectural Digest writes, the bust “weighs some 700 pounds and requires the manpower of no less than five people to move it, which allowed it to hide in plain view for all of those years, as no one felt inclined enough to investigate.”
Mortillaro contacted Rodin specialist Jérôme Le Blay, who traveled to Madison and authenticated the bust. He even found a 1910 photo of Rodin posing next to the Napoleon sculpture.
The origins of the bust were confirmed in 2015. But due to security concerns—the value of the sculpture is estimated to be between $4 and $12 million—officials kept the news a secret until they could find a home for Rodin’s bust. Around two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art agreed to take the sculpture on extended loan, and Madison officials finally felt comfortable publicizing their remarkable find.
It is an opportune acquisition for the museum. “Napoleon enveloppé dans ses réves” will go on display along with two other Rodin pieces—"St. John the Baptist Preaching" and "The Helmet-Maker’s Wife"—in time to mark the centennial of Rodin’s death on November 17.