AUSTIN (KXAN) – With her $35 purchase at a Goodwill Store in Texas nearly five years ago, resident Laura Young helped discover a lost piece of ancient Roman artwork. She bought the marble bust from an Austin Goodwill in August 2018.
An antiques procurer, she knew right away there must have been a storied history behind the art piece. What she didn’t realize was that story wound its way back to first-century A.D. Rome.
How did an ancient Roman bust end up in Austin?
Before Young’s thrift-store discovery, the last known location of the bust was at a museum in Aschaffenburg, Germany, during the height of World War II, San Antonio Museum of Art specialists told NEWS10’s sister station in May 2022. Lynley McAlpine, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at SAMA, said that museum lootings were commonly conducted by infiltrating armies throughout the war.
As for how it ended up in Texas, that remains a mystery to this day. “Aschaffenburg, which is the German city where the museum was located where this head was displayed, was a strategically important city during World War II for the Germans. And as a result, it was bombed a lot by Allied bombers,” McAlpine said.
In January 1944, the Pompejanum—the German museum that served as a replica of the Roman villa Pompeii—was bombed. U.S. forces remained in the region until the end of the Cold War, leaving a vast window for when the item was taken. “There was definitely a lot of American presence. And so, it seems likely that however they got hold of [the bust], that some American who was stationed there probably got it and brought it back home with them to Texas somehow,” McAlpine said.
What has happened since its discovery at an Austin Goodwill Store?
Since last May, the bust has been on display at the SAMA. Now, it will begin preparations for its journey back to Germany, with its final day on display in Central Texas on May 21.
“We knew last year, last May, when we were about to start the exhibition, that people would be interested in the story because we thought it was fascinating,” McAlpine said on Monday. “But it blew up way more than we had even imagined.”
The exhibition has attracted a wide range of audiences, from local school groups and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg to Archduke Carl Christian of Austria. McAlpine said her hope is that the piece served as an entryway for more visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty of ancient art, while also getting a better understanding of such issues as art looting and repatriation.
“We feel really privileged to have played this very small part in the fascinating and complicated history of this work of art,” she said. “We still don’t know exactly how it got to Texas. That remains a mystery after all this time. But it’s good that it had another year in Texas for people to learn about it before it goes back.”
In addition to the ancient bust, two other pieces from SAMA’s “Roman Landscapes” exhibition will be returned to Germany. That return home is a closely monitored process to ensure the pieces safely make their way back to their destination, she said.
For international travels, couriers from the recipient institution will come and accompany the art pieces, ensuring that they’ve been packed properly and escorting them on their journey home. “We’ll miss his frown in our Roman art gallery, but we hope that maybe people have gotten a bit of a taste for ancient art,” she said. “There’s lots more to see at SAMA and elsewhere in Texas if that’s something that you’re interested in. This isn’t the end for ancient Rome in Texas.”