AUSTIN (KXAN) — As an antique procurer, Austin resident Laura Young knows her way around vintage art. She has a history degree and has taken plenty of art classes.
So when she discovered a $35 marble bust at a Goodwill Store in August 2018, she knew there must’ve been a storied history there. What she didn’t expect was history to trace its roots back to first century A.D. Rome.
“Clearly, this thing’s antique,” she said. “So I did some Google Image searching and looked up Roman marble busts. And it’s like oh, yeah, that looks like my guy.”
Discovering a piece of Roman history
Young enlisted the help of world-renowned auctioneer Sotheby’s to help analyze the bust. Through the company’s familiarity with Roman antiques, they estimated the piece was an authentic, roughly 2,000-year-old piece of Roman artwork.
That’s where things got complicated, Young said. Because of its unknown origins and questions surrounding how it made its way to Texas, Young reached out to the University of Texas at Austin’s classics department and hired an art-centric attorney to help navigate the international law and ethics surrounding the bust.
“They knew that there was a bigger story here,” she said. “And at that point, I realized that I was going to have to try to arrange for him to be returned.”
UT professors Dr. Rabun Taylor, Dr. Adam Rabinowitz, and Dr. Stephennie Mulder helped connect Young with the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) to determine the next steps for her ancient find and to provide a bit more history on how exactly it showed up in Austin.
How does a 2,000-year-old Roman bust make its way to Texas?
The last known location of this bust dates back to a museum in Aschaffenburg, Germany during the height of World War II, said Lynley McAlpine, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at SAMA. It isn’t uncommon during extreme chaos and wartime for museums to be looted and art pieces stolen by infiltrating armies.
“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,” she 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.
A reunion years in the making
It’s been nearly four years since Young discovered the Roman bust, and complications in international art law paired with the coronavirus pandemic delayed its long-awaited return to a museum’s possession.
During that timespan, Young and her husband had a bit of levity with the bust, an art piece she said had a pronounced presence in her home.
She named the bust Dennis Reynolds after the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” TV character — a fitting tribute, she said, to the happy chaos the bust’s presence had in her life.
“The joke is that he did the Dennis system on me: He demonstrated value, he nurtured dependence, he neglected me emotionally. He instilled hope. And then he separated entirely when he left the house,” she said, laughing.
“He’s been Dennis Reynolds almost from day one,” she added. “As soon as I realized the mess that was gonna be behind this, the happy mess, but just the messy history and everything.”
After three and a half years of the Dennis effect in her Austin house, the bust has found a temporary new home. For the next year, it’ll be on display at SAMA before it makes its way back to Germany.
The return is bittersweet, Young said. Her husband had a 3D printed miniature replica made of “Dennis,” so he can always occupy a space in Young’s home.
But despite the missing space in her house, she said she’s at peace knowing the bust is able to share its history with Central Texans before making its rightful journey back to Germany.
“I’m glad other people get to see him,” she said. “He’s been hidden away since World War II, you know, he’s survived the bombing. He’s survived the fall of Rome. He deserves to be seen.”