An overlooked bust of Napoleon goes from borough hall wallflower to art world sensation, thanks to the eagle eye of Drew sculpture sleuth Mallory Mortillaro.
A few months into her part-time gig cataloguing artwork inside the Hartley Dodge Memorial Building—aka Madison Borough Hall—Mallory Mortillaro C’13, G’15 fixed on a marble sculpture gracing a public meeting room. It was a curious sight: an elegant bust of Napoleon Bonaparte in a space where borough leaders approve Madison’s annual budget. Mortillaro’s curiosity led her to run her fingers around the base of the sculpture—tucked tightly into a corner on its bronze pedestal —in hopes of finding a signature. Astoundingly, she found one: “A. Rodin.”
She did some preliminary research but needed to stay focused on the work she was doing for the Hartley Dodge Foundation, recording and labeling about 200 photographs and a handful of art pieces. Presenting her completed work to the Foundation trustees at the end of 2014, she asked if she could try to authenticate the sculpture as truly the work of Auguste Rodin. Amazingly, the trustees said yes to the then 22-year-old, who, as a Drew undergraduate, had toggled between two majors, English and art history, before choosing the latter—fortunately for the art world, as it turned out.
At that point, Mortillaro was busy pursuing a master of arts in teaching at Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, an intensive full-time program that lasts a year. Still, the aspiring teacher, who has a tremendous work ethic and had held a string of part- time jobs and internships throughout college, was eager to crack the Rodin mystery.
Authenticating the piece as a Rodin and establishing its provenance—how it got from Rodin’s studio in France to a suburb in New Jersey—was a slog. Emailing and calling those who could help and never hearing back. Unearthing leads that became dead ends. In short, the outside world just wasn’t as eager as the dogged Mortillaro to confirm the sculpture. In Paris, though, she found an ally.
Jérôme Le Blay is a preeminent expert on Rodin at the Comité Rodin. In June 2015, Mortillaro sent him a description of the sculpture on a form that she jokingly described as, “So you think you’ve found a Rodin.” Mortillaro went one further by also sending images of the piece. The next morning, Le Blay replied, saying, “You have a very great discovery,” adding that he wanted to see the sculpture in person.
Ten weeks later, Le Blay entered the second-floor meeting room and greeted the bust with, “Well, my friend, so this is where you’ve been hiding.” At long last came the confirmation that Mortillaro had desired: the rediscovery of an art- work that had been out of circulation since 1933.
They kept the revelation a secret, though, given security concerns for a sculpture that’s estimated to be worth at least $4 million. In fact, it wasn’t until October 2017, after they arranged to loan the piece to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death, that they shared the news. And what a huge story it be- came, picked up by the Associated Press and ricocheting around the world on news outlets from local stations to the French network TF1.
Her alma mater could not be prouder. For Mortillaro, now a language arts teacher in Summit, the experience “has been humbling, exciting and extremely rewarding. Sharing this work of art with the world is one gift, but proving to myself what can be done through perseverance and hard work is certainly another. I will take it with me wherever I go.”
Lost & Found
Media outlets around the world carried news of an incognito Rodin in Madison Borough Hall:
The New York Times
Wall Street Journal
French news network TF1