Catherine Hess doesn't have all the paperwork to prove that a 400-pound signed marble statue of George Washington is the one made 179 years ago by portraitist and sculptor David d'Angers and given to the United States by France.
But the chief curator of European art at the renowned Huntington Library in San Marino said Wednesday she has no doubt it's authentic.
A conservator who recently refurbished and analyzed the 33-inch bust, signed and dated 1832, came up with scientific proof, Hess said.
Newspaper stories and quotes from those involved indicate the bust initially was put on display in the Library of Congress, which was then in the front of the Capitol, she said. It was placed next to a statue of the American Revolutionary War general Lafayette. The Library of Congress has no record of it, though.
In her research, Hess found a letter that d'Angers, also known as Pierre-Jean David, wrote to John Quincy Adams saying he would like his Washington bust placed next to Lafayette's, said Hess, an art historian for 30 years.
On Christmas Eve 1851, fire destroyed thousands of books and burned the busts, Hess said. She believes the authenticating paperwork also might have burned up in that fire.
It appears the Washington bust was thrown away after the fire, she said. Hess said she found a photo of the Lafayette bust broken into three parts, but no photos of the Washington bust.
In 1904, France replaced the Washington bust with a bronze statue made from the same mold, Hess said. It is on display today at the Capitol.
Marble dealer James Klaber bought the fire-blackened bust in 1914 for $25 from someone who had buried it in the backyard of his home. "No one knows how got it got buried," Hess said.
Klaber talked to some art historians and figured out what he had, the curator said. Four years later, Klaber's son John, wrote about the bust for Art and Archaeology magazine. The family hired a New York gallery to sell the bust.
Railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington, founder of the San Marino museum, generated headlines across the country when he bought the bust for $3,500. It was charred and had a chip out of its cheek, Hess said.
The statue was put on display at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in 1984 and again from 2001 to 2007.
When Hess arrived at The Huntington two years ago, she saw the bust in storage. "It was dirty and grimy and on an unattractive pedestal," she said. But she recognized the signature and said: "I love David d'Angers."
In 2010, she asked Los Angeles conservator John Griswold to clean, patch and analyze the bust.
He showed her scientific proof that the bust had been in a fire, and that cinched the deal for her.
Hess contacted the Capitol to make sure no one would be laying claim to the sculpture and "was assured the statute of limitations had run out."
On Wednesday, the bust went on display at The Huntington, 12 miles northeast of Los Angeles. "It looks gorgeous. It's a stunning thing," Hess said.
The bust is signed and dated on the drapery on the left side.
If the bust had turned out to be fake, wouldn't the publicity it has generated through the years have been enough to keep it on display?
"No way. We are not that kind of museum," Hess said.