AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a $35 purchase at an Austin Goodwill Store nearly five years ago, resident Laura Young helped discover a lost piece of ancient Roman artwork.
Young first purchased the marble bust from Austin’s Goodwill Store on Far West Boulevard in August 2018. An antiques procurer, she knew right away there must’ve 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?
Prior to Young’s discovery in a secondhand thrift store, the last known location of the bust dates back to a museum in Aschaffenburg, Germany during the height of World War II, San Antonio Museum of Art specialists told KXAN in May 2022. Lynley McAlpine, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow at SAMA, said 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 told KXAN last year.
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’s happened since its discovery at an Austin Goodwill Store?
Since last May, the bust has been on display at the SAMA. Now, it’ll begin preparations for its journey back to Germany, with its final day on display here in Central Texas May 21.
“We knew last year, last May, when we were about to start the exhibition, that people would be interest in the story because we thought it was fascinating,” she told KXAN 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 issues like 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 they’ve been packed up properly and traveled with 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. “And 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.”