It’s NOT Always Sunny in Ancient Rome

A priceless 2000 year old Roman bust was bought at a Goodwill for $35 and spent about 3 years in the living room of a Texan couple who named it Dennis, after the character from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Laura Young, the woman who purchased it and brought it home, described Dennis and his ancient counterpart as “…cool, …aloof — no emotion — possibly a little sociopathic.”[3] – cue S3E11

Now, this is all very exciting news for the German historic building soon to reobtain a long lost item from its collection, and for those who love to learn about history, but… insert commercial clip elephant

Forgery. It’s a force to be reckoned with in the world of art. Most fakes enter the pool of genuine artefacts without making a splash at all, blending in well enough to avoid suspicion from scholars and laypeople alike.[9, p.494] In one case, a forgery was deemed authentic for about 7 years by experts who closely analyzed it. The thing that finally exposed it was a few weeks of skepticism and further scientific testing.[10], [11]

To my knowledge, Dennis has not been tested scientifically at all. The experts judged it to be 2000 years old based on photographs alone.[3]

The way I see it, there are 4 main options for this bust:

1 – It was forged by 2018.

2 – It was forged by the 1830s.

3 – It’s inauthentic but not forged, meaning that the person who made it had no intention for it to deceive anyone.

4 – It’s authentic.

As of right now, every person that I’ve seen post about Dennis is going with option 4. I haven’t seen anyone else even suggest options 1, 2, or 3.

Forged by 2018

Option 1 is based on the obscure history of the object prior to it surfacing in 2018. Experts are saying that it was stolen from the Pompejanum in 1944 or 1945 during World War 2. This could be that bust, or it could be one attempting to imitate it. There’s only been one piece of evidence put forth to support that it was there prior to the war, and it’s this photo.

I’ve zoomed in on the bust that they say is Dennis and I’ve placed a recent picture of it next to it.

There do appear to be some differences in the facial structure but the older image is too blurry to say for certain. The main problem is that the angles of the two photos don’t match. A solution to this problem would be to take a new picture from the same angle as the old one to make for a better comparison. I have many questions about this. One is: are there other pre-war photos or images of the same bust?

Some others are:

1 – How common of knowledge is it that this specific bust has been missing?

2 – How long was it after the war that anybody noticed it was gone?

Moving on to Option 2, let’s grant that the bust we have today is the one that is in the photo.

Forged by the 1830’s

The only other piece of evidence used for its provenance is King Ludwig I of Bavaria’s 1833 inventory list. Here’s a picture of it:

Entry 201 is named “DRUSUS”. It states it’s a head made of white marble and it gives a height of 1 foot and 7 inches. An English translation of the German text “Bruder des Kaisers Tiberius, mit dem er Aehnlichkeit hat” is “Brother of Emperor Tiberius, with whom he bears a resemblance”.

Is this item included in other catalogues? Is it even the same object as the one bought from Goodwill? One thing that stuck out to me is that Entry 201 is labeled as a “head” while Entry 202 is labeled as a “bust”. Is there a notable difference between the two?

To move this along, let’s grant that Entry 201 is the object we have today. It could still be a forgery, but the latest it could have been made would be just before the king acquired it.

The king became heavily involved in collecting arts and antiquities during his reign in the early 1800s, when he acquired the bust (before 1833 but after 1804).[8] This was a time when a steep rise of interest in collecting antiquities was sweeping all across Europe. This craze gave way to a similarly massive increase in forgeries. So many in fact that the 1800s have been called “the great age of faking”.[7, p.161]

Don’t let the name fool you into thinking that forgery wasn’t prevalent prior to this time because it was. In the 19th century, forging Roman busts was a practice already hundreds of years in the making. Italians in the 1500’s forged on a scale that might shock, and among their forgeries, busts of Roman emperors were the most popular.[6, p.79]

All this is to say that there is reason to be skeptical of new historical finds that have not been scientifically tested, this includes especially of Dennis.

To say it one last time, the expert consensus is that this is a Roman bust dating back to around 2000 years old. It’s on display now in the San Antonio Museum of Art and is scheduled to return to Germany next year in 2023.

So, is Dennis an authentic ancient Roman bust, or is he a fake from a more recent age? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Like, subscribe, and check out my video on the history of forgery.

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References:

[1] – Fanning, Timothy. “Texas woman made an unusual find at Goodwill. It turned out to be a Julio-Claudian-era Roman bust.” (San Antonio Express-News, 4 May 2022). https://www.expressnews.com/lifestyle/article/roman-bust-texas-goodwill-san-antonio-museum-17147409.php. Accessed 25 May 2022.

[2] – Grant, Daniel. “Looted Roman bust, bought from Texas secondhand store for $34.99, will be returned to Germany” (The Art Newspaper, 4 May 2022). https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/05/04/roman-bust-germany-goodwill-store-texas-restitution. Accessed 25 May 2022.

[3] – Edwards, Jonathan. “Shopper pays $34.99 at Goodwill for a priceless ancient Roman bust” (The Washington Post, 10 May 2022). https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/05/10/roman-marble-bust-goodwill/. Accessed 25 May 2022.

[4] – Philipps, Hannah J. “Ancient Roman treasure found at Goodwill now on display at Texas museum” (CultureMap Fort Worth, 16 May 2022). https://fortworth.culturemap.com/news/travel/05-16-22-ancient-roman-bust-found-at-goodwill-texas-museum/#slide=0. Accessed 25 May 2022.

[5] – Sorensen, Stephen. “Over 30 Years of Forgery Exposed: Man Charged With Forging Antiquities By The Thousands” (Ctruth, 3 Sept. 2021). https://ctruth.today/2021/09/03/over-30-years-of-forgery-exposed-man-charged-with-forging-antiquities-by-the-thousands/. Accessed 25 May 2022.

[6] – KURZ, OTTO. “EARLY ART FORGERIES: FROM THE RENAISSANCE TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 121, no. 5198, 1973, pp. 74–90. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/41371017. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[7] – Jones, Mark, et al. Fake? The Art of Deception. First Edition, University of California Press, 1990.

[8] – Amineddoleh & Associates LLC. “Our Client’s Voluntary Return of Marble Bust to Germany Provides Model for Restitution of Looted Artifacts” (2 May 2022). https://www.artandiplawfirm.com/voluntary-return-of-marble-bust-to-germany-provides-model-for-restitution-of-artifacts-looted-in-wartime/. Accessed 25 May 2022.

[9] – Roussin, L. A., & Muscarella, O. W. (2002). The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient near Eastern Cultures. Journal of Field Archaeology, 29(3/4), 494. doi:10.2307/3250912. Accessed 25 May 2022.

[10] – Wilding, Nick. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 4, 2014, pp. 1337–40. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.1086/679809. Accessed 26 May 2022.

[11] – WILDING, NICK. “Forging the Moon.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 160, no. 1, 2016, pp. 37–72. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26159243. Accessed 27 May 2022.

[12] – Miller, Joshua Rhett. “Antiques dealer bought priceless 2,000-year-old Roman bust at thrift store for $35” (New York Post, 5 May 2022). https://nypost.com/2022/05/05/antiques-dealer-bought-priceless-2000-year-old-roman-bust-at-thrift-store-for-35/. Accessed 26 May 2022.

One Comment on “It’s NOT Always Sunny in Ancient Rome

  1. “4 – It’s authentic. As of right now, every person that I’ve seen post about Dennis is going with option 4. I haven’t seen anyone else even suggest options 1, 2, or 3.”

    Welcome to our world, Stephen. We call this ‘careful ignoral’. We do not concern ourselves with matters of controversy — there are zillions of people out there who can, and are, arguing for all points of view, and with more expertise than we can bring to the table.
    We get involved when no-one is arguing. It’s easy to identify these precisely because everybody is taking the same position on a matter where there simply cannot be unanimity unless some other factor is involved. This applies, if you think about it, to every work in a gallery or museum. Whether they are forgeries or not.

    Like

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