The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) is a leader in the field of research on provenance, or the history of ownership, of works of art in its encyclopedic collection. The Curator for Provenance works with curators throughout the Museum to research and document the MFA’s collection on an ongoing basis. Findings are included in the Museum’s online collections database, /collections.
The MFA follows the highest standards of professional practice in regards to issues of ownership and in its response to claims for works in the collection. If research demonstrates that a work of art has been stolen, confiscated, or unlawfully appropriated without subsequent restitution, then the Museum will notify potential claimants, and seek to resolve the matter in an equitable, appropriate, and mutually agreeable manner. The following is a list of ownership resolutions at the Museum since the late 1990s.
In June, 2014, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston reached an agreement with the National Commission of Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (NCMM), transferring to the Commission eight antiquities of Nigerian origin that were believed to have been the subject of illicit trafficking.
The MFA received the objects as part of the bequest of the late William E. Teel, who acquired all eight objects in good faith in the 1990s from dealers in the United States and Europe.
The antiquities include two Nok terracotta figures and a terracotta Ife head, archaeological materials that are known to be at high risk for theft and looting. The group also includes an ekpu, or ancestral figure dating to the 18th or 19th century, which was part of the collection of the Oron Museum, near Calabar, Nigeria, as late as the 1970s; and a bronze altar figure of about 1914, which was likely stolen from the Royal Palace in Benin City in 1976. Two terracotta heads produced in the Kingdom of Benin, and a group of Kalabari screen figures appear to have been illegally exported.
The Museum began the process of researching the provenance of the objects after receiving notification of the bequest. Recognizing that these eight objects were probably illegally removed from Nigeria in recent years, and that their export would have been regulated by Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments Act (chapter 242) of 1990, the MFA contacted the NCMM to seek its authorization before proceeding with their acquisition. The NCMM swiftly responded that the export of these objects had not been approved; and, indeed, that several documents which purportedly authorized their sale and export were inauthentic. Upon receipt of this information, the MFA began to arrange for the return of the objects to Nigeria.
2013—Roman Statuette of Mercury (Object # 04.9)
In January, 2013, the MFA returned a bronze statuette, Mercury, to the Musée de la Chartreuse in Douai, France, from which it had been stolen in 1901. Since 1904 the Imperial Roman figure, dating to the 1st or 2nd century AD, was in the MFA’s collection, where it was identified as Mercury or Hermes, the messenger of the gods.
The statuette was discovered around 1780 near Le Quesnoy, France, and shortly thereafter became part of the collection of Augustin Carlier (1732–1818) of Bavay, Belgium, a renowned collector of antiquities. In 1833, Carlier’s collection was given to the city of Douai. The statuette, known as an Orator or Antinoüs, was inventoried at the Douai Museum (now the Musée de la Chartreuse) as early as 1849. On July 3, 1901, a theft occurred at the Museum and the statuette was taken. The thief was apprehended on July 30. He had in his possession other items from the Douai Museum and a list of the objects he had removed, including the Antinoüs; however, the statuette was not recovered. The MFA purchased the work in 1904 from Boston collector Edward Perry Warren, without knowledge of its previous ownership. It is not known where or from whom Warren had acquired it.
The Museum had no further information about its provenance until 2011, when a routine request to borrow the statuette for an exhibition prompted a thorough investigation of the object’s ownership history. Upon learning that the MFA statuette had once belonged to the museum in Douai and was considered lost, the MFA wrote to the Musée de la Chartreuse notifying the staff there of the object’s presence in Boston. The Musée de la Chartreuse furnished the MFA with extensive documentation on the theft of 1901 and a 19th-century photograph showing the statuette in Douai. Identical areas of damage left little doubt that the object in question was the MFA statuette. As a result, MFA Trustees voted in October 2012 to deaccession the figure for a return to Douai.
2011–– Weary Herakles (# 1981.783)
In September 2011, an agreement between the MFA and the General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey was signed, transferring ownership of the top half of the 2nd-century AD Roman Imperial marble sculpture Weary Herakles to the Turkish government. Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA, and Murat Suslu, Director General for Cultural Heritage and Museums, signed a Memorandum of Understanding at the Museum, acknowledging that the MFA acquired the object in good faith and without knowledge of any ownership or title issues, and providing for the transfer of the object, which took place after the signing.
2011––Eglon van der Neer, Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior (# 41.935)
In June 2011, the MFA reached a financial settlement with the heirs and the estate of Walter Westfeld for Eglon van der Neer’s Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior, allowing the painting to remain at the Museum. Walter Westfeld (b. 1889 – d. after 1942) operated an art gallery in Wuppertal, Germany, during the Nazi period. A 1935 decree from the Reichs Chamber of Fine Arts forbade him from working as a dealer because he was Jewish, and he was ordered to close the gallery in May of 1936. That month, an exhibition of works of art owned by Westfeld was held at the Galerie Kleucker in the nearby city of Düsseldorf, including a Company Scene by Eglon van der Neer. This was almost certainly the MFA painting. The paper trail ends there, and begins again five years later. The MFA purchased the painting from E. and A. Silberman Galleries, New York, in December 1941. Silberman probably acquired the painting in the spring of that year, but it has not been ascertained from whom.
It is not known for certain how the MFA’s Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior left Westfeld’s possession and made its way to the United States. Without further documentation, its exact provenance may never be known. However, it is difficult to imagine a scenario by which he sold the painting voluntarily in Nazi Germany, receiving proceeds over which he had free disposal.
In November 1938, Walter Westfeld was arrested for violating Germany’s foreign exchange laws. He spent the remaining years of his life in captivity and on January 23, 1943, was sent to his death at Auschwitz.
2011—Four Tapestries from the Life of Urban VIII Series (#s 50.3586, 50.3587, 51.2804, 52.262)
In March 2011, the MFA finalized a settlement with the heirs of Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, allowing the Museum to retain four seventeenth-century tapestries, which were included in a forced sale in Berlin in 1935. The four tapestries were part of a larger series that depicted the life and achievements of Pope Urban VIII. By 1928, eight tapestries from the series, including the four at the MFA, were owned by the art dealer Margraf in Berlin. Margraf was run by Jakob Oppenheimer and his wife Rosa, who were Jewish. In 1933, the Oppenheimers fled Germany to avoid Nazi persecution and relocated to France. During their absence they were forced out of their management roles at Margraf and were forbidden from performing any legal transactions for the company.
As a well-known Jewish business, Margraf was extinguished as quickly as possible by the Nazi regime. The gallery stock was sold off rapidly in a series of auctions held in Berlin in 1935. The Oppenheimers were unable to realize the proceeds from these sales. Research conducted by the MFA confirmed that the Museum’s four tapestries were sold to an unknown buyer at one of the 1935 auctions. The MFA contacted the Oppenheimer heirs in 2010 to inform them of their location at the MFA, and to begin settlement discussions.
The tapestries have been at the MFA since the 1950s, and were gifts from Eugene Garbáty, a German Jewish art collector. Garbáty purchased six of the eight tapestries from an unknown dealer shortly after they sold at auction in 1935. He was told that they had come out of a castle in Austria, and was unaware that they had belonged to Margraf or been in a forced sale. Garbáty, himself a victim of Nazi persecution, brought four of the tapestries with him when he fled Germany for the United States in 1939; he gave them to the MFA between 1950 and 1952.
2010––Entombment of Saint Vigilius (# 46.1198)
In the fall of 2010, the MFA returned to the Museo Diocesano Tridentino (Diocesan Museum of Trent, Italy) an embroidered panel, the Entombment of Saint Vigilius, dating from around 1390–1391. The embroidery depicts the burial of Saint Vigilius (b. about 353–d. 405), the third bishop and patron saint of Trent, and the delivery of the news of his martyrdom to the pope and Emperor Theodosius. The narrative cycle of the life of the saint was depicted on a number of embroidered panels, which were originally sewn onto the consecration vestments of George of Liechtenstein, appointed bishop prince of Trent in 1390.
In the early 20th century, the five embroideries that remained from the original cycle were housed in the Museo Diocesano Tridentino. The museum’s original location in the Theological Seminary was subsequently closed, and the embroideries were placed in the cathedral sacristy. There, presumably between 1939 and 1944, all trace was lost of the panel showing the burial of Vigilius and the announcement of his death.
The MFA purchased the embroidery in 1946 from an Italian art dealer in New York without knowledge of its subject matter or provenance. Prior to the acquisition, MFA curators inquired about its history and were told only that its previous owner had inherited it along with a large collection of other antique objects. The Museum had no additional information about its provenance until 2008, when Dr. Evelin Wetter of the Abegg-Stiftung (Riggisberg, Switzerland) contacted the MFA, indicating that the panel was once part of the Saint Vigilius series from the Museo Diocesano Tridentino. Curatorial research by the MFA confirmed that the embroidery belonged to that series. In June 2008, the MFA contacted the Museo Diocesano to initiate discussions about its return, which concluded in April 2010 with the signing of an agreement by the MFA, the Archdiocese of Trent, and the Museo Diocesano.
2007––Oskar Kokoschka, Two Nudes (Lovers) (#1973.196)
In March 2007, the MFA received a restitution claim for Oskar Kokoschka’s Two Nudes (Lovers). Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, represented as the sole and unrelated heir of the last surviving son of Oskar Reichel, the painting’s former owner, asserted that Reichel was forced to sell Two Nudes (Lovers) under duress in Nazi-occupied Austria in 1939; later, her counsel asserted that the painting had been confiscated from Reichel by the Nazis. Upon receipt of the claim, the MFA conducted a comprehensive investigation of the painting’s provenance and concluded that it has legal title to the work. The MFA shared with the claimant’s counsel the results of its research. When the claim was not withdrawn, the Museum filed suit in January 2008 to confirm its ownership of the painting. In May 2009, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel ruled that the MFA is entitled to retain ownership of Two Nudes (Lovers). The First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision in October 2010. A brief summary of the research is presented at /collections/provenance.
In September 2006, the MFA transferred 13 antiquities to Italy and signed an agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture marking the beginning of a new era of cultural exchange:
- Two-handled vessel (nestoris), about 420-410 BC (1971.49)
- Lekythos, about 500-490 BC (1977.713)
- Water jar (kalpis-hydria) depicting Apollo making a libation before gods and goddesses, about 485 BC (1978.45)
- Two-handled jar (pelike) depicting Phineus with the sons of Boreas, about 450 BC (1979.40)
- Statue of Sabina, about AD 136 (1979.556)
- Water jar (hydria), about 530-520 BC (1979.614)
- Vase for bath water (loutrophoros) depicting Pelops and Hippodameia in chariot, 320-310 BC (1988.431)
- Mixing bowl (bell-krater), about 380-370 BC (1988.532)
- Oil flask (lekythos), about 490 BC (1989.317)
- Two-handled jar (amphora) depicting the murder of Atreus, about 340–330 BC (1991.437)
- Triangular support for a candelabrum shaft, decorative colonette, or small basin, AD 20-60 (1992.310)
- Two-handled vessel (nestoris) depicting athletes in conversation with girls, late fifth century BC (1995.588)
- Mixing bowl (bell-krater) with Thracian hunters, about 440-430 BC (1999.735)
The agreement includes the creation of a partnership in which the Italian government will loan significant works from Italy to the MFA’s displays and special exhibitions program, and establishes a process by which the MFA and Italy will exchange information with respect to the Museum’s future acquisitions of Italian antiquities. The partnership also envisages collaboration in the areas of scholarship, conservation, archaeological investigation, and exhibition planning. Significant loans already have been made to the MFA, including works in the exhibitions Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice (2009) and Aphrodite and the Gods of Love (2011).
2006––Meissen figure of Augustus III (never formally accessioned)
In 2006, the MFA received as part of a bequest an 18th-century Meissen figure of Augustus III, which it did not formally accession, or make part of the Museum collection. MFA curators had already recognized the object as coming from the famous Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection) of Dresden. Works of art from the Dresden museums had been put in storage during World War II, and the figure of Augustus III went missing during this time. The statue was returned to the Porzellansammlung in 2006.
2004—Virgin and Child (# 1970.77)
In November 2004, the MFA deaccessioned the panel painting Virgin and Child for restitution to its owner, Anna Konopka Unrug of Poland. This was in response to the claim for the painting received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland on behalf of Unrug. The painting once formed the central panel of a triptych that belonged to Unrug’s grandfather, Tadeusz Konopka (b. 1844–d. 1903), and was passed by descent to his son, Józef (b. 1884–d. 1940) of Jaroslaw and Warsaw, who was killed in 1940. The painting remained in his Warsaw apartment, where his wife Helena (b. 1899) and daughter Anna (b. 1921) lived, and was plundered during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. It is not known when the triptych was separated; neither of the side panels has been located.
The MFA purchased the painting in 1970 from a dealer in Frankfurt, Germany, without knowledge of its wartime or immediate postwar provenance. At that time it was attributed to the Master of the Saint Barbara Altar, a Silesian painter active in the 15th century. Research revealed that it had been in Tadeusz Konopka’s possession and remained in Poland during World War II. The MFA posted this information on the MFA website, which enabled the claimant, through the Polish Ambassador, to locate the painting.
2000—Adoration of the Magi (# 1992.163)
In October 2000, the MFA reached an agreement with the heirs of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe with respect to the painting Adoration of the Magi by Corrado Giaquinto. Its previous owner, Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, was a Jewish Italian businessman living in Paris. He died of natural causes in April 1940, leaving his estate to his children. With the fall of France to Hitler in June of that year, his family fled the country. German law forbade the return of those who had left occupied territory, so his family was unable to assert its claim to the works of art. A surrogate administrator was appointed to manage the family’s affairs and the art collection was auctioned in Paris in 1941. While the estate received the revenue from the sale, the family lost its ownership of the paintings.
In 1997, Gentili di Giuseppe’s heirs brought legal action against the Musée du Louvre and the State of France to have the April 1941 sale declared null and void. In June 1999, the Court of Appeals of Paris nullified the sale, determining that Gentili di Giuseppe’s family had been prevented from attending to the administration of the estate. Five paintings held by the Louvre were subsequently returned to the family. By February 1999 the heirs had begun pursuing individual claims regarding the other paintings in the 1941 auction and contacted the MFA about the Adoration of the Magi.
The MFA had purchased the painting in April 1992 from Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd., a well-regarded firm of art dealers established in London in the early 19th century. The firm, in turn, had purchased the painting at Christie’s, Monaco, in June 1990. Because the MFA had purchased the painting before any claims were registered with the French government, the heirs recognized that the Museum acquired the work in good faith, without knowledge that the 1941 sale was problematic. The agreement reached with the heirs enabled the MFA to acquire the Adoration of the Magi and keep it on display in its galleries.
1998—Greek Vase Fragments
In 1998, the MFA contacted Greece’s Minister of Culture regarding a group of 274 vase fragments. These fragments had been at the MFA since 1958 and were long believed to be on loan from a private collection. A routine review of loans conducted in the spring of 1997 revealed that these fragments had been accepted by the MFA in February 1959 with the stipulation that the Museum would undertake their transfer to Greece. The MFA transferred the objects to the Hellenic Republic Ministry of Culture in April 1999.
1997—Statuette of Sucellus (# 1980.174)
A small Roman statue acquired by the MFA in 1980 was discovered to be one of a group of eight bronzes stolen from the Musée de Beaux-Arts et d’Archaéologie in Besançon (MBAA), France, in 1914. Upon making this discovery, the Museum contacted the French authorities. The bronze was deaccessioned in 1997 and returned to Besançon in 1999.