Her long odyssey begins with notes on a spreadsheet and ends with a big ta-da.
Her long odyssey begins with notes on a spreadsheet and ends with a big ta-da.

Mallory Mortillaro celebrates the discovery at Madison Borough Hall.

October 2017 – As art mysteries go, the one involving a sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte inside Madison Borough Hall was difficult to crack.

In fact, it took Mallory Mortillaro more than a year to research and confirm that the sculpture was indeed created by Auguste Rodin, in 1910. Mortillaro, a graduate of Drew University and its Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, shared her story with about 300 who packed the hall for a gala celebrating the sleuthing.

The chatty crowd—which included Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger and Tom Kean, the former New Jersey governor and Drew president—grew quiet and rapt as Mortillaro, now a sixth-grade language arts teacher in Summit, described the odyssey that began with a few notes on a spreadsheet and ended with a big ta-da this month, after she secured a spot for the piece—which is owned by the Hartley Dodge Foundation—in a Rodin exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Since then, the story of Mortillaro discovering a Rodin that was missing from the art world for eight decades has become a media phenomenon, spreading to hundreds of print and TV outlets in the U.S. and abroad.

Sharing her story with a rapt crowd
Sharing her story with a rapt crowd

The foundation had hired Mortillaro in early 2014 to catalog its historical photographs and art inside Borough Hall, which foundation namesake Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge built in memory of her son and gifted to Madison. Here are four key moments in cracking the mystery from Mortillaro and Nicolas W. Platt, president of the foundation.

“She felt something chiseled.”

From the start, Mortillaro was drawn to the marble piece tucked tightly in one corner of the hall’s public meeting room. She ran her hand around the base, feeling what turned out to be Rodin’s signature around back. Reflecting on this early clue, Platt said, “Little did she know that that little action was going to result in an . . . odyssey of dead-end after dead-end, frustration, rejection, false leads, unanswered phone calls and that a single loose thread she pursued would bring us to this moment.”

Kudos from Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger
Kudos from Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger

“You let me take the reins on this project.”

Foundation trustees placed a lot of confidence in a part-time researcher. Addressing them at the celebration, Mortillaro said, “When I came to you said, ‘I think you have a Rodin,’ you said, ‘Okay.’ You let me take reins on this project. I was 22 years old with a degree in art history and you said, ‘You can do this.’ And that meant so much to me and this opportunity has been such an amazing experience. So, I cannot thank you enough for believing in me and trusting me with this project.”

“You have a very great discovery.”

Later on, Mortillaro, who also has a master of arts in teaching from Caspersen, reached Jérôme Le Blay, an expert on Rodin who lives in Paris. After filling out a form describing the find, she went further and emailed photos of it to Le Blay. His reply was swift and promising. “You have a very great discovery,” he told her, adding that he wanted to see the piece in person.

The art sleuth with Hartley Dodge Foundation President Nicolas Platt and Tom Kean, the former N.J. governor and Drew president
The art sleuth with Hartley Dodge Foundation President Nicolas W. Platt and Tom Kean, the former N.J. governor and Drew president

“Excuse me. You’ve been living with this for 80 years and you have no idea what you have?”

Upon entering the meeting room and seeing the bona fide bust, Le Blay cheekily tweaked its caretakers with this remark before turning and addressing the piece itself: “Well, my friend, so this is where you’ve been hiding.”

Toward the end of her talk, Mortillaro, who continues to work with the foundation as a curator, reflected on the trustees’ decision to put the sculpture back into circulation, beginning with a spot at the Philadelphia museum.

While the foundation doesn’t plan to sell the bust, trustees felt that loaning it out was the best course, particularly given the high cost of insuring it in a public building. “We don’t see this as a dismantling of the Dodge collection,” explained Mortillaro, “but an opportunity to let the rest of the world into our story.” And what a great feel-good story it is.