Long-forgotten Rodin sculpture discovered in New Jersey town hall

Story highlights

The marble bust of Napoleon was commissioned in 1904

It is the only known political or military figure sculpted by Rodin

CNN  — 

In the corner of the council room of the town hall in Madison, New Jersey, sits a sculpture by Auguste Rodin that had been overlooked for years.

With no paperwork for the marble bust, no one at the Hartley Dodge Memorial, which serves as the town hall, had any idea of the treasure they had on their hands.

The discovery came only in 2014, when the Hartley Dodge Foundation, which maintains the building’s artworks, hired 22-year-old Mallory Mortillaro as a temporary archivist.

While making a list of what was in the building, Mortillaro got to the bust of Napoleon Bonaparte that had been pushed up against a wall of the room.

It had recently spent two years in a plywood box during renovations, surrounded by jackhammers and building debris, the foundation said.

Mortillaro “ran her hand at the base of the bust and felt something chiseled,” said Nicolas Platt, the foundation’s president. It turned out to be the sculptor’s signature.

“I was intrigued. I was a little confused about why this piece would be here without anyone knowing anything about it,” Mortillaro told CNN.

Mortillaro told the trustees what she had found, and Platt said they blew her off at first. “She said, ‘You don’t understand. I think we have a Rodin.’”

Rodin's signature is chiseled at the base.

Detective work

Because the foundation had no information on how the bust got into the building or where it came from, Mortillaro went to work to determine the authenticity of the piece.

“I reached out to scholars,” Mortillaro said. “I wasn’t having a lot of luck until I got in touch with the Rodin museum.”

Rodin expert Jérôme Le Blay, formerly of the Rodin Museum in Paris, wrote back to Mortillaro saying he would fly from Paris to see the piece. Le Blay told the foundation the art world had lost track of it decades ago.

Mortillaro explained to CNN that the piece was commissioned in 1904 and purchased four years later by industrialist Thomas Fortune Ryan. It then spent several years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before being purchased in 1933 by Ethel Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge at an auction.

The bust was installed in the memorial building in 1942, she said.

Rodin expert Jerome Le Blay, who authenticated the bust, poses with Mallory Mortillaro, who discovered its famous past.

The discovery of the Rodin was made public only last week. It is now heading for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it will be on loan for the centenary of the artist’s death next month.

The bust is worth at least $4 million, the foundation said, adding it has no plans to sell it. Platt said the bust is the only known political or military figure sculpted by Rodin.

“People are curators their entire lives and don’t end up finding a blue whale in a boat. That’s what (Mortillaro) did,” said Platt.

“It’s a really special thing to be able to give to the world,” said Mortillaro.