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Trash To Treasure: $34.99 Goodwill Find Is Actually Ancient Roman Sculpture

Note: This article may contain commentary or the author's opinion.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the proverb goes, and for one Texas woman this saying came to fruition when she learned her $34.99 Goodwill find is actually an ancient Roman bust dating from the late 1st century BC to the early 1st century AD.

Laura Young, an avid art collector and thrift shop treasure hunter, purchased the bust in 2018 after finding it under a table at her local Goodwill.  She believed the bust to be a couple of centuries old, but wanted to know precisely the sculpture’s authenticity and origin, so reached out to auction houses around the country and art experts at the University of Texas, Austin, one of whom assessed the piece and confirmed it was from ancient Rome.  This determination was narrowed down to ancient Rome of the 1st century BC to the early 1st century AD by a consultant at Sotheby’s, the storied multi-national auction house.

But how did the bust get to Texas? And who is the bust of?

Experts believe the bust could be of a son of Pompey the Great (106–48 BC), a member of the First Triumvirate and who was eventually defeated in civil war by Julius Caesar. It was part of the vast art collection of King Ludwig of Bavaria who kept the bust at his replica of a villa from Pompeii he called the Pompejanum in Aschaffenburg, Germany, in the 1840s.  Its emergence in Texas could be the result of an American soldier bringing the sculpture home after World War II ended. The US Army had opened military installations in Aschaffenburg.

However, Young understood that once provenence and ownership of the bust had been determined, her trash became another’s treasure:

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). 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, Young said.

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Young agreed to return the sculpture to Germany. As part of the condition of return the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes has allowed the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) to display the piece until May 2023.

This brings up the question of who owns art?  Finders keepers is not an immutable concept when it comes to stolen art, and whether that sticky-fingered soldier existed or not, the bust of Pompey the Great’s son does not belong in the Lone Star State, according to the Bavarian Palace Department.

We are very pleased that a piece of Bavarian history that we thought was lost has reappeared and will soon be able to return to its rightful location, said Bernd Schreiber, president of the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes.

Even though Texas will eventually lose the little treasure, SAMA’s Emily Ballew Nett sees the silver lining:

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.