Rodin's Napoleon Bust Found in New Jersey

Napoleon Bonaparte

Essentially by chance, an art history student rediscovered a bust of one of France's most famous rulers that was made by one of her most famous artists.

The piece depicts Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France from 1804 until 1814, and then briefly again in 1815. It was done by Auguste Rodin, who lived from 1840 until 1917.

The piece was found in 2014 by Mallory Mortillaro, then age 22, who was tasked with taking an inventory of all the artwork in the borough hall of Madison, New Jersey, a town of about 16,000 people. The bust, which had been simply sitting on a pedestal, bore the signature "A. Rodin" in the artist's easily recognizable style. (It also had the inscription "wrapped in his dream.")

Wanting to discover if this was authentic, Mortillaro consulted archives and experts. Finally, she had success when she contacted the Comite Auguste Rodin, an organization in Paris specializing in the artist and his works. They had a photograph of Rodin posing with the Napoleonic bust, but had written it off as lost.

"The stone corresponds exactly with that used by Rodin during that era," said Jerome Le Blay, a Rodin expert who authored the artist's artist's catalogue raisonne, or descriptive inventory. He traveled to Madison to confirm the bust's authenticity in September 2015.

At this point, Madison officials did not know quite what to do with the piece, which is estimated to be worth between $4 million and $12 million. They had no documentation of it entering the building, explained Nicolas Platt, the president of the building's manager, the Hartley Dodge Foundation.

Apparently it had been commissioned in 1904 by the wife of a prominent New York City attorney named John Woodruff Simpson. For some reason she stopped corresponding with the artist, however, perhaps because she got discouraged during the two- or three-year process of sculpting. It was instead sold to Rodin's friend, Thomas Fortune Ryan, in 1909, and eventually sold at an auction in 1933, after his death.

Apparently the buyer was Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, daughter of financier William Rockefeller. After the boating death of her son in 1930, she constructed the Hartley Dodge Memorial—now Madison Borough Hall—and decorated it with her own artwork.

For security reasons, the Hartley Dodge Foundation kept the bust a secret for two years. Now, it will be transferred to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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