One in a Million

The story of art looted by the Nazis has been a genre of fascination for many as of late, including the books (and movies) Monuments Men and The Lady in Gold. The idea that there are treasures out there, hidden in caves or in someone’s home, waiting to be discovered, appeals to our fantasy of coming across an undervalued object at a thrift store or yard sale. What if we could go on Antiques Road Show and find out that we own a piece of art worth millions?

A woman in Texas recently got to live the dream when she discovered a genuine ancient Roman bust in a Goodwill store for $34.99. But it turns out that you should indeed be careful what you wish for. While the sculpture may be worth a lot of money, she cannot profit from it directly. The portrait, from the late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE, was looted during World War II and must be returned to its rightful owner.

The twist in this story is that the bust did not belong to a Jewish family who had it stolen by the Nazis. Instead, it came from the collection of a Bavarian king and must be returned to that German state’s government. Most likely it was looted by an American soldier who brought it back to the States only for it to wind up in an Austin Goodwill store over 70 years later.

This story is right out of another novel, And After the Fire, which was the selection for the One Book One Jewish Community program in 2017. In the book, an American GI brings home an antisemitic manuscript of a cantata written by Johann Sebastian Bach. The protagonist of the novel must decide what to do with it and whether it should ever see the light of day.

We generally think of looted World War II art as a Nazi phenomenon, but of course allied forces brought back their own trophies, souvenirs, and treasure. Any pieces of art should certainly be returned to their rightful owners, but I can’t help but feel that while the Roman bust will be quickly returned to Bavaria after going on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art, the ownership of Jewish pieces have been harder to resolve.

Obviously, each work of art is unique and comes with its own circumstances, but why was this situation concluded so easily, with a modest finder’s fee given to the discoverer in Texas? Why can’t Jewish art be returned to the proper owners with similar alacrity? The thought of finding a hidden treasure is alluring, but so is finding justice for those who were robbed and persecuted during the Holocaust. Discovering a priceless sculpture in a Goodwill store may be a one-in-a-million occurrence, but doing what is right should happen all the time.

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