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She found a 2,000 year old sculpture at Goodwill. It took years to get rid of it

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You can meet people in strange places, form bonds just because you're around each other all the time. And sometimes those are the friendships that can be the hardest to let go. KUT's Matt Largey has a story of a friendship like that. It begins at a thrift store in Texas.

MATT LARGEY, BYLINE: When Laura Young went into a Goodwill store in Austin, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. She's an antiques dealer, and she goes to thrift stores a lot looking for treasures. It's August 2018. And there's Laura, browsing the aisles, when she sees him.

LAURA YOUNG: He was sitting under a table.

LARGEY: Chiseled, strong jaw line.

YOUNG: Clearly old.

LARGEY: All white, a little banged up.

YOUNG: The hairstyle, like, looked kind of Greco-Roman.

LARGEY: Made of marble.

YOUNG: And he was gorgeous. Like, he looked great.

LARGEY: The price tag was stuck right on his face - 34.99. A bargain, right?

YOUNG: That's actually a pretty high price for Goodwill. But this was the Goodwill Boutique, which, of course, is the fancier Goodwill.

LARGEY: But this was fancy even for Goodwill Boutique - a marble portrait bust of a man, great condition and more significant than she could have imagined at the time. She bought him, got him out to the car.

YOUNG: And I strapped him in the front seat with a little seatbelt, tried to keep him safe, and I drove him home.

LARGEY: It was the start of a nearly four-year ordeal trying to get rid of it. When Laura got him home, she did some Googling. She contacted someone at an auction house in London who confirmed that he was old - like, from the first century old, 2,000 years old. Another auction house found the head in a catalog of items from a German museum in the 1930s, listed as a portrait bust of a man named Drusus Germanicus. So how did a 2,000-year-old sculpture of a Roman general's head wind up in a Goodwill in Austin, Texas?

STEPHENNIE MULDER: There are plenty of Roman portrait sculptures in the world. Yeah. There's a lot of them around. They're generally not in Goodwills.

(LAUGHTER)

LARGEY: Stephennie Mulder is an art history professor at the University of Texas.

MULDER: So the object itself is not terribly unusual. But the presence of it here, of course, is what makes it extraordinary.

LARGEY: We can't know exactly how it wound up at Goodwill, but we can guess. This particular piece was last known to be at a museum called the Pompejanum in the German city of Aschaffenburg. There's a photo of it there in the 1930s. But in World War II, Aschaffenburg was the site of a brutal battle between the Nazis and the U.S. Army.

MULDER: So we know that many of the objects were either destroyed in the bombing or looted afterwards.

LARGEY: So maybe the head comes to the U.S. in a soldier's duffle bag, maybe to Texas or maybe somewhere else. Then we can assume it sits in someone's house for decades. And somehow someone decided they didn't want it anymore, so they anonymously donated it to Goodwill - which brings us back to Laura. And she has a problem now. She's in possession of a looted ancient artwork. She can't keep it. She can't sell it. And giving it back to its rightful owners is a lot harder than it sounds.

YOUNG: At that point, I realized I was probably going to need some help. I was probably going to need an attorney.

LARGEY: So she hired a lawyer in New York who specializes in international art law. Then the negotiations began. The sculpture belongs to the Germans, so they had to work out a deal for its return. It's more complicated than you'd think. It takes a long time to figure all this stuff out.

So where is the head during this time?

YOUNG: It's at my house, in my living room.

LARGEY: Like, on your coffee table?

YOUNG: It was on a small credenza close to the entryway of our house. Every time you walk into the kitchen, you pass the head. Every time you walk into the house, he greets you. He's there. He was a constant presence.

LARGEY: And in a weird way, Laura started to get attached. She named him after the Dennis Reynolds character from the TV show "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia." He and the head have a lot in common.

YOUNG: He was attractive. He was cold. He was aloof. I couldn't really have him. He was difficult. So, yeah, my nickname for him was (laughter) Dennis Reynolds.

LARGEY: So there Dennis sat for a couple years. It might have been frustrating for Laura, but Dennis didn't seem to mind. Time works differently when you're a 2,000-year-old head. Finally, they get a deal. The Germans would take Dennis back. Last month, the movers came to get him.

YOUNG: It hurt a little for it to finally be done. But yeah, he needs to go home. He wasn't supposed to be here.

LARGEY: The terms of the deal are confidential. But the Germans agreed to let Dennis stay in Texas for one more year. So for now he lives at the San Antonio Museum of Art, on display with other Roman art. Next June, he'll get boxed up and, after 75 years, go back to Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEINZ KIESSLING'S "TEMPTATION SENSATION")

LARGEY: You're still going in that Goodwill?

YOUNG: Yeah, I have gone. You know, I'm not finding Roman heads. And, yeah, it's tough when I just don't want to go to Goodwills anymore. It's like, but...

LARGEY: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...You have to (laughter).

LARGEY: Yeah.

When you find something like that, she says, you just have to keep going.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEINZ KIESSLING'S "TEMPTATION SENSATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.