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Bust of former Michigan governor rediscovered at DIA after 93 years

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John J. Bagley’s likeness sat at a prominent spot in Campus Martius until 1926

The white marble and stone exterior of the Detroit Institute of Arts. There’s a series of stairs leading to the triple arches at the front entrance. Photo by Michelle Gerard

A 93-year mystery has been solved.

As detailed in a story in the Detroit Free Press, the bronze bust of former Michigan Gov. John J. Bagley once sat in a prominent spot in Campus Martius.

American sculptor Carl Herman Wehner made the bust in 1889 and it was soon after placed in its downtown location on a podium with a plaque, surrounded by a fence. The bust was displaced in 1926 as Woodward Avenue and Campus Martius changed, and eventually stored at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

A bronze bust of the torso and head of a long-bearded, bald man in a three-piece suit.
Bust of Governor John J. Bagley, 1889, by Carl Herman Wehner
Detroit Institute of Arts

From there, the bust seems to have been forgotten. That is until Dan Austin—an author and historian who runs the website Historic Detroit—took up the case. (In a funny aside, Ryan Patrick Hooper for the Free Press wrote, “The story of Bagley’s bust does raise the question of whether something can truly be missing if no one is looking for it.)

Austin contacted the DIA and soon after the museum located it.

Technically, it still belongs to the city of Detroit. And now that it’s been rediscovered, officials seem interested in putting it back on display at a “place of honor.”

“I’ll work with our historic team to take a look at the statue and work with the Detroit Historical Society to figure out next steps,” Katy Trudeau, deputy director of planning and development for the city of Detroit, told the Free Press.

During his time, Bagley was an important figure in industry and politics. He moved to Detroit in 1847 and ran a successful tobacco company. He later won election to the Detroit Board of Education and was a founding member of the Republican Party. During his two terms as governor (1873-1877), he established the Michigan Board of Health, among other initiatives.

“Does Detroit need another bronze bust of a wealthy white dude? Probably not,” Austin told the Free Press. “But he was a prominent figure in Michigan’s history. It’s just that most people didn’t know he (was) such a prominent figure in 19th Century Detroit that they put a bust of him right in the heart of the city.”