When Laura Young came across a marble bust at a Goodwill store in Austin, Texas, four years ago, she sensed she was in the presence of something special.
Priced at just $34.99, the work was a steal. but Young, who has long had an eye for overlooked treasures through her company Temple of Vintage, noted its worn features and natural gravitas. She began speaking to specialists from museums and auction houses and eventually Jörg Deterling, a consultant at Sotheby’s, was able to identify the bust as an antique from the Julio-Claudian era.
This unlikely thrift shop find is only the latest twist in the bust’s rich history. It is thought to portray the military leader Sextus Pompey, a son of Pompey the Great who took on Julius Caesar in a Civil War and lost. Sextus, who was eventually executed, attempted to avenge his father in a battle with Caesar’s successors.
The earliest known record of the portrait is in the 1833 inventory of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. It was one of the objects displayed in his Pompejanum, a full-scale replica of a Pompeii villa built for enthusiasts to study ancient culture. The city of Aschaffenburg, where the villa is still located, was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and when it was restored in the 1960s, the bust was not recovered. It is most likely that it had been taken home by a U.S. soldier stationed in the area.
Young was very excited when she received the identification from Deterling, who put her in touch with German authorities. “It was bittersweet since I knew I couldn’t keep or sell the [bust],” she said. “Either way, I’m glad I got to be a small part of [its] long and complicated history, and he looked great in the house while I had him.”
The portrait will return to Germany in 2023. Bernd Schreiber, president of the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes, said “we would like to take this opportunity to thank the San Antonio Museum of Art for their support in returning the ancient portrait.”
In the meantime, the bust is on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art, which is home to a noteworthy collection of antiquities, until May 2023.
The museum’s director, Emily Ballew Neff, said: “It’s a great story whose plot includes the World War II era, international diplomacy, art of the ancient Mediterranean, thrift shop sleuthing, historic Bavarian royalty, and the thoughtful stewardship of those who care for and preserve the arts.”