In 2014, 22-year-old Mallory Mortillaro, who’d recently graduated with an art history degree, was hired as an archivist at the borough hall of Madison, New Jersey, a municipality of 16,000 people. In the second floor meeting room, she discovered, sitting innocuously in a corner, a genuine Rodin: a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte, carved of marble and weighing 700 pounds. “A. Rodin,” the signature read, faint and nearly lost to time. It’d gone so unnoticed for the past 80 years that its accompanying pedestal was often leaned on during meetings.
After searching through the building’s archives, Mortillaro consulted the Paris-based Comité Auguste Rodin, the leading authority on Rodin. They had, in their collection, a photo of Rodin with the bust. In 2015, Rodin expert Jerome Le Blay traveled to Madison to authenticate the piece; even before doing so, he knew the bust was genuine at first glance.
The piece dates back to 1908; engraved with “Napoleon enveloppé dans ses réves” (“Napoleon wrapped in his dreams”), it features the military leader cloaked in swaths of billowy fabric and is worth between $4 and $12 million. As of this month, it’s on its way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it will be donated on an extended loan in commemoration of the centenary of the artist’s death in November.
Madison’s borough hall, officially named the Hartley Dodge Memorial Building, was built by heiress Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge and filled with art from her private collection. The building is a tribute to her son, Marcellus Hartley Dodge Jr., who died in a car accident in 1930. At the time, there were no official records indicating any inclusion of the Rodin piece.
After further digging, Mortillaro discovered that the bust was originally commissioned in 1904 by a prominent collector — the wife of New York lawyer John Woodruff Simpson — who eventually stopped communicating with Rodin, perhaps due to the length of time the piece took to complete. Her colleague, the tobacco magnate Thomas Fortune Ryan, later purchased the piece in Paris; he eventually loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was displayed for over 10 years. When Ryan passed away, Dodge purchased the bust at an auction in 1933.
While the bust’s authenticity was confirmed two years ago, it has been kept a secret by the Hartley Dodge Foundation until quite recently. Hidden-in-plain-sight stories are strange for their conclusion and even more for their implication — that an object you’ve overlooked is, potentially, a legitimate treasure.