Work of famed French sculptor turns up in NJ council room

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.”

Image showing artist Auguste Rodin with Napoleon bust in early 20th century.

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.)

11 thoughts on “Work of famed French sculptor turns up in NJ council room

  1. What a cool story. And Belize it or not, it so happens I met a young lady who graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which I and probably droves of people never heard of (just a guess) who was staying at a cottage at a little riverside eco-resort. I hang out a lot because it’s owned by of an old Belizean ranch family and the mama has great home-cooked food, very cheap, at the restaurant. The old man and his sons run the ranch its on. It also has wifi and I write there a lot and meet fascinating people from everywhere in the world. The graduate from Madison in Jersey was a live wire, trekking all over the world alone like so many kids do. In fact it restores my hope for the future all the great young folks I meet in BZ trekking around on summer breaks or after graduation. Plus, all the young archeology, ecology and other students who come down for a semester of overseas practical education stuff. So in addition to being a wonderful yarn I perked up!

    • Sometimes I wish I’d taken a year or two after college and traveled, but the budget didn’t allow it. I’d like to think that at some point in the future I’ll do so, or perhaps take on a venture such as yours. One thing for certain, I will appreciate a great deal more than I would have at 22 or 23. And think of what you were able to pass on to the young FD graduate and others like her who pass your way. We all have a purpose, even if not all of us understand it.

  2. This is a great story, but I am confused by the timeline. She “discovered” the bust in 2014? Did you just learn of the story and that why you are posting this now? At the end, you state the bust will remain in Madison until Oct. 22. October 22 of what year?

    • I should have been a bit more detailed. The young archivist discovered the bust in 2014 but it took some time to verify that it was actually a Rodin. Then the town chose to keep the find a secret until recently, for fear of it being stolen. It was on display at the town hall through this past Oct. 22, before being moved to Philadelphia. And thank you for the kind words.

  3. Wow! And three cheers for Ms Mortillaro. What a find – and how dogged of her to keep digging into her research. I’m assuming that “temporary archivist” means intern. Let’s hope she has been swept up and employed somewhere she can hone her skills.

  4. I hope, but doubt, that the trustees are thoroughly ashamed of themselves…
    What a determined young lady she must be. I do hope she gets a good and permanent job in which to use her knowledge.

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