Here’s How a Grad Student Found a Multi-Million Dollar Sculpture Hiding In Plain Sight

In sleepy Madison, New Jersey, a routine cataloging of artwork uncovers the art find of a lifetime.

BustCourtesy Drew University/Karen MancinelliBust-hunting may be one way to make your mark in history.

That’s what happened to Drew University graduate student Mallory Mortillaro, 26, who was working as a part-time cataloguer of the art collection at a municipal building in Madison, New Jersey, when she spotted a sculpture she suspected was by a world famous artist.

She was right. The bust of Napoleon Bonaparte turned out to be by the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin, the creator of “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” and it had been hiding in plain sight for 85 years. The sculpture is worth between $4 million and $12 million, according to Jerome Le Blay, one of the world’s leading experts on Rodin.

There had been rumors that the piece might be a Rodin, but there were no records to support it. Mortillaro noticed the faint signature—A. Rodin—after squeezing around the back of the 700-pound artwork, which sits on a pedestal in a corner of the borough hall. “Right away, I saw the signature, and the piece characteristically fit in with Rodin,” said Mortillaro, who studied art history as an undergraduate. Yet it took months of detective work and following up on leads before she located Le Blay and contacted him. When he wrote back right away, “That’s when I knew we really had something,” she said. He even hopped a plane from Paris to check out the piece.

“Hello, my friend, so this is where you have been hiding,” Le Blay said upon seeing the artwork. Mortillaro made the discovery in 2015 but it was kept secret for security reasons. More than 700 people came to a recent showing at the borough hall when the sculpture was displayed to the public for a day. It is going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art temporarily.

bustCourtesy Drew University/Karen MancinelliThe long-lost bust, titled Napoléon Enveloppé Dans Son Rêve (Napoleon Wrapped in his Dream),” was commissioned by New York collector John W. Simpson in 1904. From 1915 until 1929, it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after which it was anonymously acquired by heiress Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge in 1933. The Hartley Dodge Foundation owns the artworks on display in the borough hall and has no plans to sell the Rodin.

“To think that we’ve had people walking past it for years, not realizing the great piece of art they were sitting next to, or standing next to, during a council meeting,” said Madison Mayor Robert Conley. (Check out these abandoned works of art in the middle of nowhere.)

According to Le Blay, there are several other lost Rodins, so keep your eyes peeled for “Sappho,” a three-figure group last seen in a German collection before World War II.

Fans of sculpture will appreciate these works of art people have created in butter, ice, and Legos.

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