Madison, NJ, might seem an unlikely locale for the discovery of a long-lost art treasure.
While Madison, located in the northern half of the Garden State, has an array of large homes, some dating back to the Gilded Age, and is the site of Fairleigh Dickinson University, the town is also home to fewer than 16,000 residents.
But Madison’s local government meets in the Hartley Dodge Memorial, an elegant building donated by Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, daughter-in-law of Standard Oil co-founder William Rockefeller and wife of Remington Arms Chairman Marcellus Hartley Dodge.
Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge was a great patron of the arts, amassing an impressive collection during her long (1882-1973) life. Among the pieces she acquired was a bust of Napoleon crafted by Auguste Rodin, the famed French artist.
The work, titled “Napoleon Wrapped in His Dream,” was commissioned in 1904 and completed around 1910. It was on display for several years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before being purchased in 1933 by Dodge at an auction. The bust, the only known political or military figure sculpted by Rodin, was installed in the memorial building in 1942.
It would then appear that everyone, at least in Madison town government, forgot what they had.
It wasn’t until 2014, when the Hartley Dodge Foundation, which maintains the building’s artwork, hired a 22-year old as a temporary archivist, that the sculpture was “rediscovered.”
While making a list of what was in the building, young Mallory Mortillaro came across the bust of Napoleon, which had been pushed up against a wall in the council room of the building.
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 Rodin’s signature.
“I was intrigued,” Mortillaro told CNN. “I was a little confused about why this piece would be here without anyone knowing anything about it.”
Mortillaro told the trustees what she had found, and they blew her off at first. “She said, ‘You don’t understand. I think we have a Rodin.’”
A Rodin, it might be added, worth between $4 million and $12 million.
The foundation had no information on the bust’s provenance, so Mortillaro began to seek out details that would determine its authenticity.
She contacted a variety of scholars but had little luck until she reached the Rodin Museum in Paris.
Rodin expert Jérôme Le Blay wrote back to Mortillaro saying he would fly from Paris to see the piece, according to CNN.
The art world, it turned out, had lost track of the Napoleon bust decades previously, Le Blay told the foundation.
The discovery of the Rodin was made public only this month. The work was on display at the Madison town hall through Oct. 22, after which it was sent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it will be on loan for the centenary of the artist’s death next month.
(Top: Napoleon bust shown in Madison town hall before being shipped for display in Philadelphia Museum of Art.)