Roman bust bought at Texas Goodwill for $35 reveals history of WWII looting

20 percent of all art in Europe was appropriated by Nazis in WWII in a “crime of opportunity,” and allied soldiers did it too.

 A Goodwill store. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A Goodwill store.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Usually, bargain hunters at Goodwill stores are happy when they find brand-new shoes or a designer-label coat at half price, but art collector Laura Young got a bit more than that when the Roman bust she bought for $34.99 at an Austin, Texas Goodwill store turned out to be the real thing.

According to an interview in the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesmen, Young, who purchased the bust in 2018 quickly realized that the 23.5 kilo (52-pound), 48-centimeter tall (19-inch) marble bust was old and began researching its origins.

She met with art historians from University of Texas at Austin, and consulted with experts at several auction houses including Jörg Deterling, a researcher consultant of Sotheby’s, who matched it to a 1931 photo of the bust in the German villa where it had been displayed in the atrium, and put her in touch with German authorities. They recognized it as having belonged to the collection of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and dated it to late first century BCE or first century BC.

The villa had been located in the German town of Aschaffenburg and was a full-scale model of a house from Pompeii that the king had built as a museum, called the Pompejanum.  

According to Sotheby’s, Deterling has been “responsible for many returns, restitutions, and repatriations over the years, but his name has never appeared anywhere in connection with them.”

 The marble bust which turned out to be a Roman relic Laura Young purchased for $34.99 at an Austin, Tx Goodwill store securely seatbelted in her car after she bought it. (credit: Courtesy of Amineddoleh & Associates) The marble bust which turned out to be a Roman relic Laura Young purchased for $34.99 at an Austin, Tx Goodwill store securely seatbelted in her car after she bought it. (credit: Courtesy of Amineddoleh & Associates)

During World War II Aschaffenburg had been targeted by allied bombers, and the Pompejanum villa was seriously damaged. According to the American Statesman, the bust was saved from destruction as it had been transferred to a storage facility just before the bombing.

The law firm which helped with the legal transfer of the bust said most likely a returning soldier had either looted the bust himself or bought it from someone who had stolen it and brought the sculpture back to Texas. Its whereabouts remained unknown until it turned up at the Goodwill store.

In a photo shared on the San Antonio Art Museum’s Facebook page, the bust—which is in remarkably good condition—is seen strapped into Young’s car with a seatbelt, a yellow price tag still on its cheek.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused delays in the process of transferring the bust’s title and relocating it. The transfer to the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes in Germany was finalized in 2021 with the help of the Aminddoleh & Associates law firm. Last month the bust was temporarily brought to the San Antonio Art Museum where it will be on display until it is returned to Germany in 2023 by agreement with the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes.

While most World War II-era looted art focuses on thefts perpetrated by the Nazi party which appropriated about 20 percent of all art in Europe at the time, allied soldiers during the war were also guilty of looting valuables ranging from household goods to rare paintings and antiquities, the law firm said in a press release.

Many of the art treasures and antiquities stolen by the Nazis belonged to Jews, including Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, known as The Woman in Gold. The press release noted that the gilded painting was seized by the Nazis after its Jewish owners were forced to flee Austria. Along with other works from the Bloch-Bauer’s collection, the portrait wound up in the Austrian State Gallery, but the heirs to the estate fought to recover their family’s lost property, eventually winning their case and selling the painting in 2006 for $135 million.

“Looting is often a crime of opportunity, and soldiers on all sides of a conflict may take advantage of the situation by partaking in the appropriation of stolen valuables,” Aminddoleh & Associates said in the release. “Allied soldiers during WWII were no exception. Some of the goods pilfered by allied troops, like cigarettes and household goods, are relatively inexpensive or nearly worthless by today’s standards. But others – including paintings, rare coins, historic photos, musical instruments, and antiquities – possess great artistic and cultural value. Those valuables continue to be found to this day, sometimes in surprising locations. Some have been returned to the heirs of the original owners while others are involved in ongoing litigation.” 

The press release recounted the theft of what is known as the Quelindburg Treasure by a member of the U.S. Army as an example. The collection of medieval religious objects included a jeweled 9th-century manuscript written entirely in gold known as the Samuhel Gospel. The soldier mailed the artifacts home to his family in Texas. Decades later the soldier’s heirs reached an agreement with Germany and returned the items in exchange for $2.75 million, the law firm said.

There are differences in opinion as to who the bust bought by Young depicts. The law firm's press release says it depicts Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, the commander of the Roman forces occupying the German territory between the Rhine and Elbe Rivers. In 9 B.C., Drusus Germanicus reached the Elbe River, but was thrown from his horse and died 30 days later from the injuries he sustained. However, the SAMA said it may portray a son of Pompey the Great (106–48 BC), who was defeated in the civil war by Julius Caesar.

“Some unusual details of the bust resemble other portraits of the famous general, including the curling lock of hair on his forehead, his furrowed brow, and the creases on his neck, but with the addition of the traditional beard of mourning worn by his sons after Pompey’s death,” the museum noted.

Listing its provenance, the law firm said the bust was acquired before 1833 by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, an art lover and a patron of the arts who commissioned major museums and art projects throughout Bavaria and the rest of Germany so Munich could rival European art capitals, like Rome and Paris.

The bust was probably stolen in 1944 or 1945, they said.

They noted that other of the Pompejanum museum’s objects survived the allied bombing but were later looted.

“But nothing looted from the museum was ever sold by the museum or German government, and thus title to any looted property remained with the Bavarian State,” they said. “Under US common law principles, valid title to artwork cannot be transferred through looting. There must be a legitimate transaction for title to vest legally in a subsequent purchaser. This means that the Bavarian State continues to maintain a legal claim of ownership over objects that were taken from the Pompejanum.”

“It’s bittersweet. It would have been nice to keep him, but I’m glad that I was the one who found him. I’m glad that he didn’t end up in someone’s backyard,” Young said in the American-Statesman interview about the transfer of the Goodwill bust. 

At a time when repatriation of cultural items and antiquities to their country of origin has come to the forefront, Bernard Schreiber, president of the Bavarian Administration of State-Owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes said in a statement they 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.”

Aminddoleh & Associates noted that the same week the announcement was made about the Goodwill bust, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston announced the return of a looted marble sculpture to Italy, which was likely stolen during WWII.  

“The (Pompejanum) marble bust’s journey is an extremely important story to tell,” they said. “It reflects our passion for the past and collecting, the value of museums in providing access to heritage and knowledge, the unfortunate displacement and destruction of national and cultural heritage during conflict and the hope that people and institutions will choose to act ethically and protect our shared heritage.”