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The forgotten history of Rodin’s Napoleon, found in New Jersey

Napoleon Bonaparte and Auguste Rodin are both household names in their own right. But a bust of the French emperor created by the master sculptor faded into oblivion in an American town, only to be discovered by chance.

The white marble statue was certainly visible in the meeting room of the borough hall of Madison — a municipality of 16,000 people in New Jersey.

In fact for some 80 years, the bust was positioned on a pedestal, carelessly leaned on during meetings.

But in 2014, a 22-year-old art history student recruited to take inventory of the building’s artworks, came across the bust and noticed a signature that read “A. Rodin” in the sculptor’s immediately recognizable style.

Intrigued by the discovery, Mallory Mortillaro consulted experts and dug into archives, determined to confirm whether it was indeed a genuine Rodin.

She was eventually pointed in the direction of the Paris-based Comite Auguste Rodin, the leading authority on the father of modern sculpture.

And the mystery was solved: in the group’s collection of documents was a photograph showing Rodin posing with the bust, which was believed to have been lost.

In September 2015, Rodin expert Jerome Le Blay, author of the artist’s catalogue raisonne, or descriptive inventory, traveled to Madison. He needed only seconds to confirm the authenticity of the piece.

In addition to the hundred-year-old photo, Le Blay confirmed in an interview: “The stone corresponds exactly with that used by Rodin during that era.”

– The proof was in the pantograph –

The identification of the statue — worth between $4 and $12 million — paradoxically was cause for concern for the Hartley Dodge Foundation, which manages the building.

“There was no paperwork, there was absolutely no record that it had entered the building,” Nicolas Platt, the foundation’s president, told CBS News.

For security reasons, the directors kept the revelation a secret for two years, before announcing last week it was to be transferred to the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art. During this time, the bust’s history was uncovered.

The marble was commissioned originally in 1904 by the wife of John Woodruff Simpson, a prominent lawyer in New York — but after some time, Simpson stopped responding.

“Marbles generally took two or three years to complete in Rodin’s time, so it’s possible that between the commission and 1907-1908, she became a little discouraged,” Le Blay told AFP.

– Lost without a trace –

Thomas Fortune Ryan, a friend of the collector, then bought the piece during a visit to the Paris suburb of Meudon in 1909. Once he died, the bust was lost following a 1933 auction of his estate.

Research revealed that a merchant had bought the statue on behalf of Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, daughter of prominent financier William Rockefeller.

She constructed the Hartley Dodge Memorial — Madison’s borough hall — in tribute to her son killed in 1930 in a road accident in France, and decorated the interior with works from her collection.

“Geraldine Rockefeller regularly brought pieces, a bit like you would decorate your country house with pieces from your main house,” Le Blay explained. But records were not kept, meaning the bust’s whereabouts became unknown over time.

It is thought Rodin took inspiration from Napoleon’s death mask to create the bust, as well as working with a lookalike as he did when creating his “Monument to Balzac.”

The statue is engraved with the inscription “wrapped in his dream.”

In plaster studies kept at the Rodin Museum in Paris, Napoleon’s face is “a bit more warrior-like,” Le Blay said. “In the final marble, he has a more questioning side, much more evasive.”

“He is no longer Bonaparte the young victorious general, but he is not yet the French emperor who went on to conquer Europe, crushing everything in his path. He is between the two,” Le Blay added.

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