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Huntington Library displays George Washington sculpture with mysterious past

The mysterious George Washington bust in question
The mysterious George Washington bust in question
Photo courtesy of the Huntington Library

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Have you seen this sculpture? Of course you've seen something like it: Elegantly dressed George Washington peering towards the horizon, strong chin, raised eyebrow, stern, heroic expression. Your eccentric high school civics teacher might've owned something similar. But those other sculptures don't have nearly the same history.

This bust — which is on display at the Huntington — was a gift from the French government to the U.S. in 1832, created by Pierre-Jean David. It was on display in the Library of Congress, and the Capitol until a disastrous fire in 1851 damaged the bust almost beyond repair, landing it in a scrap marble heap until 1918, when it was bought by a New York art dealer. That was when the sculpture's true provenance again came to light.

So how did it end up in San Marino? The Huntington's press release has the answer:

"Henry E. Huntington acquired the bust in 1924, but kept it in storage, perhaps because The New York Times and other publications criticized the sale of a rediscovered national treasure to a private collector. The U.S. attorney general also made headlines for raising "a question as to the authenticity" of the work.

"The bust has been displayed intermittently at The Huntington since 1984. Newly cleaned, it will go on public view in a prominent spot in the Huntington Art Gallery tomorrow, opposite the institution's renowned life-size bronze Diana by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)."