December 2017 – Persistence was key to Mallory Mortillaro finding an Auguste Rodin sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte inside Madison Borough Hall.
Mortillaro, a graduate of Drew University and its Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, illustrated this point repeatedly as she told the remarkable story of her once-in-lifetime discovery during a special event at the Morris Museum in Morristown.
The art sleuth first noticed the sculpture in the Council Chamber while working as a part-time cataloguer for the Hartley Dodge Foundation, which owns the art and photographs inside the hall, but, at the time, had scant record of them.
Because of the weight of the marble bust and its bronze pedestral, the piece had been tightly tucked into the corner of the chamber, hiding a telltale detail. When Mortillaro ran her fingers around the base, however, she felt it: the chiseled signature of “A. Rodin.”
Could it be? Mortillaro’s quest seemed quixotic and she was met with bureaucracy and skepticism, recalled Nicolas W. Platt, president of the Hartley Dodge Foundation, whose board hired her.
“For $10 an hour we thought, ‘Sure, go for it,’” said Platt, who also spoke at the museum. “If nothing else, it will be a good learning experience.” Mortillaro’s research was fruitful but challenging, as she endured months of dead-ends, false leads and rejection. Ultimately, though, her tenacity prevailed, as she—with the help of a global expert on Rodin—unearthed a piece that had hid in plain sight for 80 years.
The dizzying discovery was revealed in October, triggering a cascade of media stories around the world from the likes of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, National Public Radio, Smithsonian and French news network TF1. What’s more, the feat even made Artsy’s list of the 10 “most remarkable art-historical discoveries” of 2017.
In November, the foundation loaned the bust to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for an exhibit on the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death, thereby reintroducing the piece to the larger world and fulfilling a wish of the foundation’s board and Mortillaro.
“I always wanted him to be in a museum,” she explained. “He was anonymous for decades. He deserved to be back on the world stage.”
Mortillaro, who has a bachelor’s in art history from Drew and a master of arts in teaching from Caspersen, now teaches language arts at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School. But researching the art at Borough Hall remains her avocation.
“The collection is more significant that originally thought,” she said. “There’s a reason why my part-time, one-year position has been extended indefinitely.”