Back in 2018, Laura Young went to an Austin, Texas, Goodwill store and picked up a small bust that cost $34.99. Little did she know it was an ancient artifact that historians believe Allied soldiers took in Germany during World War II.
“I got it outside in the light,” Young said, reflecting on when she first purchased the statue. “He had chips to the base. He had clear repairs. He looks old. I’ve been to museums. I’ve seen Roman portrait heads before.”
She said that the statue was “pretty dirty” once she found it, and had a worker carry the 52-pound bust out to her car.
Now, the 2,000 year old Roman artifact will be sent back to Germany after an investigation into its origins.
“There are plenty of Roman portrait sculptures in the world. There’s a lot of them around. They’re generally not in Goodwills,” art history professor Stephennie Mulder told Austin’s NPR station. “So the object itself is not terribly unusual, but the presence of it here is what makes it extraordinary.”
According to historians and researchers, the bust is probably the Roman general Drusus Germanicus or Pompey the Great’s son, and was kept in the villa of a Bavarian king. Drusus Germanicus was a Roman political and military leader who conquered portions of modern day Germany who lived from 38 to 9 B.C.
Some Americans, during fighting in Germany in 1945 took artifacts like paintings, Bibles, and exquisite chests were taken from German castles and museums. This has led some to theorize that the Roman bust ended up in the hands of an American soldier during fighting in Aschaffenburg, Germany. A bust of Drusus Germanicus had been on display at the villa of Ludwig I, who replicated a Roman villa on his property.
“US law doesn’t recognize the transfer of title when theft is involved,” said Leila Amineddoleh, who has worked as Young’s lawyer during the negotiations over the artifacts future. “I advised Laura not to sell it, either publicly or privately, that is, on the black market. She risked expensive legal battles or criminal penalties if she tried.”
It will be returned to Bavaria where it will go on display at a museum after negotiations over ownership of the head. However, for the next year, the bust will be able to be seen at the San Antonio Art Museum.
Young said she was disappointed once she found out that the Roman bust legally did not belong to her.
“Immediately, I was like, ‘OK, I cannot keep him and I also cannot sell him,’” she said. “It was extremely bittersweet, to say the least. But I only have control over what I can control, and art theft, looting during a war, is a war crime. I can’t be a party to it.”
Questions still exist about how the bust ended up in a Texas Goodwill, but the going theory is that an American soldier took it with him coming back from Europe, though it might have been difficult to take such a large object back discreetly.
Looting was banned by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower and most of the stealing was done by the Nazis, but some Allied theft did take place.
“What is very unusual is that most instances of looting were committed by the Nazis—it is estimated that 20% of all the art in Europe was looted by the Nazis,” Amineddoleh said. “However, this bust of Drusus Germanicus was most likely looted by a member of the Allied forces.”
While the investigation into the true nature of the marble bust was ongoing, Young kept the bust in her living room across from the TV.
“It was on a small credenza close to the entryway of our house. Facing the TV. So you could see his reflection in the TV when you’re watching TV,” she said, according to Austin’s NPR station. “Every time you walk into the kitchen, you pass the head. Every time you walk into the house, he greets you. He’s there. He was a constant presence.”
She nicknamed the bust “Dennis,” after a character in the TV sitcom “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
“It hurt a little bit. It was bittersweet. Like, it’s nice that there’s a resolution to it and that it’s working out for the best,” she said. “It’ll be a little bittersweet to see him in the museum, but he needs to go home. He wasn’t supposed to be here.”
This isn’t the first time that Young has picked up something valuable at the thrift store. She says previously scooped up a Chinese painting worth $63,000 for barely anything. It’s anybody’s guess what she will pick up next time she goes thrift shopping.