Taking home the “Portrait of a Man” bust after purchasing it at an Austin Goodwill. That bust has seen some things, man. (image courtesy Laura Young)

Most of us head to Goodwill with the intention of finding some retro fashions, affordable furnishings, or kitschy kitchenware. Almost none of us expect to find a centuries-old marble sculpture with a provenance as exciting and full of international plot twists as an Indiana Jones movie — but that’s exactly what art collector Laura Young picked up at a Goodwill in Austin, Texas.

Young has a habit of seeking out unexpected or undervalued artworks and antiques that have fallen by the wayside, but she had no sense that the Romanesque marble bust she noticed on the floor beneath a table at a Goodwill in 2018 had once belonged in the collection of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. The work had been installed in the courtyard of the Pompejanum, a full-scale replica of a villa from Pompeii built in the 1840s in the town of Aschaffenburg. As seen on a price tag visible in a photograph of the sculpture seat-belted into the backseat of Young’s car, she appears to have paid $34.99 for the work.

The portrait displayed in the courtyard of the Pompejanum in Aschaffenburg in 1931 (photo courtesy the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes)

According to a press release from the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), where the piece is currently on display, the Roman bust dates from the late first century BCE to the early first century CE and had disappeared during World War II, when Allied bombers targeted Aschaffenburg and damaged the Pompejanum.

“After the war, the United States Army established various military installations in Aschaffenburg, many of which remained until the end of the Cold War,” says the museum’s statement. “Most likely a returning soldier brought the sculpture to Texas, where it remained unknown until 2018.”

The museum plans to keep the work on display until its return to Germany in 2023, per an agreement with the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes.

“We are so pleased that the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces agreed to allow us to have the sculpture on view at SAMA before it returns to its rightful home,” said Emily Ballew Neff, the museum’s director. She added that it was “a wonderful example of international cooperation, [and] another critical way in which our art museums participate in diplomacy around the globe.”

“Portrait of a Man” (late first century BCE-early first century CE), Roman marble (image courtesy the San Antonio Museum of Art)

Though Young immediately noted the sculpture’s wear as a sign of authenticity, following her purchase, it took several years to pinpoint its origins. Young met with experts in the Classics and Art History departments at the University of Texas at Austin and made inquiries with auction houses across the country.

“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,” Young said in SAMA’s press release. “Soon after that, Sotheby’s got in touch. There were a few months of intense excitement after that, but it was bittersweet since I knew I couldn’t keep or sell [the bust.]”

Selfie time with a Goodwill find! Laura Young with “Portrait of a Man” (image courtesy Laura Young)

Either way, Young says she was glad to be a part of the bust’s “long and complicated history,” adding that “he looked great in the house while I had him.”

While Young has graciously relinquished what is obviously one of the greatest Goodwill finds of all time, she can surely content herself with the notion that her eye for home furnishings is fit for a king.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...