The $35 Goodwill Find of the Century

Laura Young | March 26th, 2024 (Volume 3)
Laura Young, an antique dealer, recounts her extraordinary find of a stolen ancient Roman bust at a Goodwill in Austin. The bust's journey from a WWII-era theft to a viral media sensation brought unexpected challenges and global attention to Laura, the bust and issues surrounding cultural heritage. Young's story highlights the serendipitous discovery, legal complexities, and the power of a single find to captivate the world.


Hi, my name’s Laura Young. I am an antique dealer here in Austin, and this is a story about how I broke the Internet a little bit in 2022. In August 2018, I was shopping at the Goodwill on Far West Boulevard and I found a marble portrait bust of a man for $34.99. Price was right, could not buy him fast enough.

The wheels are immediately turning in my head because this thing looks ancient Roman. He looks like busts that I’ve seen in museums before, and I’m imagining a big payout with a major auction house like let’s sell this thing. I email auction houses to sell this thing and a few weeks pass and I get a phone call from the head of antiquities with Sotheby’s auction house in London, calling on a Saturday to tell me the good news.

The bust is definitely ancient Roman like I thought so I was right. Around 2000 years old and the bad news, one of their researchers found photos of my bust online cataloged in the Bavarian State Antiquities Collection. The last photo of the bust was taken in Germany in 1933. He’s like, there’s probably a good chance it’s stolen. He said, “Usually in situations like this, you help arrange for the item to be returned. There might be a little reward or a finder’s fee. No harm, no foul.” He gives me an idea of who I need to start emailing in Germany, and we get off the phone.

I email the Germans, and on the Texas side, I email the classics in art history departments at the University of Texas here in Austin to let them know, “Hey, I found this thing. Y’all might want to see it.” They definitely wanted to see it, and he blew their minds and their excitement is making me realize, okay, maybe this is kind of a big deal.

Meanwhile, it took six weeks to hear back from the Germans, and big shocker, of course, it’s stolen. It had originally been purchased by King Ludwig 1 of Bavaria by 1833, and was housed in the Pompeianum, a replica Pompeii Villa in Aschaffenburg, Germany with the rest of King Ludwig’s Roman Treasures, safe and sound until World War II.

Aschaffenburg was heavily bombed by Allied Forces in 1945. There was the Battle of Aschaffenburg. The Pompeianum was damaged in bombing, and the bus went missing after that. It almost certainly was stolen by an American soldier, brought back here, hidden away in a house for 70 plus years. People eventually go to heaven, houses get cleared out, things get donated to Goodwill. I unwittingly buy them. I had not signed up for this when I went thrifting that day, and also the Germans would like their looted art treasure back. Thank you very much.

I’m like, okay. I think I might need an attorney. And the UT faculty helped me get in touch with Laila Aminodole out of New York City. She does cultural heritage law. She’s incredible, and she agrees to take on my little case while helping more important clients of hers like the governments of Italy and Greece. And I have a vision for the bust.

The entire story is so crazy. Royal Provenance, the way it went, missing the way he was found, he hasn’t been seen for decades. I think under the circumstances, a museum loan in Texas is a great idea before he goes back to Germany. I want to get some eyes on this guy. I want him to get some love and attention. My attorney thinks it’s a great idea and so does the San Antonio Museum of Art. They would love to have the museum loan. We just have to convince the victims of a war crime, the Bavarian state and German federal governments that this is a great idea.

That convincing took a little time, and then COVID happened. I went from initially thinking I was going to sell this thing to babysitting it for nearly four years. In that time period, I’m on a social media blackout per my attorney. I can’t talk about it, which I like to talk so that sucked. We’re hiding it from electricians and plumbers. Our neighbors don’t know about it. Very few people know it’s in the house, and we’re just living day to day with this secret ancient Roman bust in the living room that was owned by the King of Bavaria. It was very weird, but also kind of boring and mundane towards the end. I don’t know, COVID was a weird time for everyone.

We finally have an agreement in place with the Germans by January 2022. San Antonio is going to pick the bust up in early April and start displaying him in May. San Antonio is due to come get him, and I realized that I actually don’t have any photos of me with the bust because of the social media blackout. I run a comb through my air, take some selfies. San Antonio gets him. I have a cry because my baby’s finally leaving home, and then we wait.

Early May San Antonio issues a press release formally introducing the bust to the world. I do a little interview with Art Newspaper magazine and with KUT here in town. With KUT I’m like, “Hey, I have this selfie with the bust if you want it for this story.” And they’re like, “Yes, please.” All I could say is thank God I did my hair and makeup because the photo is all over the Internet for all eternity. But I digress.

I went into this very naively. I did not think that this was going to blow up and become an international viral news story overnight, which is what happened. I went from waking up every day at 10:00 a.m shopping by myself, which is the greatest job in the world, to waking up at 7:00 a.m and doing interviews with journalists from around the world.

I was interviewed by all the major news outlets in the United States, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN. It was a top news story on BBC. With the Washington Post Reporter we had a really long chat over the phone, and at one point I got a little emotional, had a bit of a crying jag. It was very embarrassing. He was sweet about it. I chalked it up to stress. Gee, I wonder why.

A day or two after that, I get a text from one of my high school friends and she’s like, “Hey, my dad saw you on the Today Show with the bust.” I’m like, “Today Show? What are you talking about? I wake up at 10:00 A.M.” Yeah, I didn’t know that all of the National Morning Talk shows that I don’t watch were covering the Roman bust story.

I went on Hulu. I found the Today Show clip. I see the selfie I took with the bust on our TV and immediately had my first ever panic attack where it feels like I’m having a heart attack and dying because I did not plan on being on TV for this thing. Once I realized I was not dying, I was able to calm down enough to give an interview with Australian Public Radio like 40 minutes later, and then make a phone call to get anxiety meds from my doctor immediately.

Monday, I’m in the exam room. I’m waiting for the doctor to come in and I get a text from one of my other friends. She has a subscription to the Austin American Statesmen. “Hey, have you seen this?” She sends me a photo and yeah, the selfie with the bust. We are the answer to the Roe V. Wade question on the front of the Sunday Austin American Statesmen. Oh my God, I did not see that. Thank you. Also, please keep it for me. Thanks.

The doctor comes in literally less than a minute later. I’m not exaggerating. He’s like, “What’s going on? How can I help you?” I show him the picture of me on the front of the newspaper. I’m like, “I’m going to need you to help me with this.” And he’s like, “Oh.” I explained this crazy news story that’s snowballing in my frustration and anxiety and crying and whatnot.

He hadn’t actually heard about it yet, and I got a little indignant. I was like, “That was a top BBC news story. My God. Like, what?” But he was more than willing to give me the meds that I needed, and I rode out the rest of the crazy viral news tidal wave. I stopped fighting it and just kind of let it go. I went to having panic attacks seeing myself on TV to kind of enjoying seeing myself on TV. Not going to lie.

I did a long interview with CBS Mornings at the museum for their morning show. That was really cool. And yeah, I ended up talking to dozens of journalists from around the world for about a month. It was the craziest, most chaotic, emotionally charged month of my life. I highly do not recommend going viral. It was stressful and anticlimactic and sad on the back end, but it was really great to finally get to talk about this thing that I kept a secret for so long.

It was great to talk about my attorney and the San Antonio Museum of Art and give them kudos. They do incredible work, and they deserve all the flowers. There was a second round of news when he went back to Germany, but it wasn’t nearly as chaotic. Thank God. I wanted to get eyes on my guy. I wanted him to get love and attention. I did not think it was going to be love and attention from around the world, but I’m glad because he’s perfect and I love him so much, and he deserves it.

On the back end, recently I heard an interview with the director of the San Antonio Museum of Art, and they did a rough guesstimate that the museum got $90 million in PR off the viral news story. That’s how big it got, which is absolutely insane. I never thought that a fun little idea that I had could generate so much buzz about thrifting and antiques, cultural heritage law and art looting, and the loan process and everything else. But yeah, I did that. I made that happen, and that is how I broke the Internet a little bit in 2022. Thank you.

Laura Young
Antique and vintage dealer.