Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Returns Ceramic Child’s Coffin to the Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum

BOSTON (April 25, 2024)— The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has reached an agreement with the Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum (Sweden) to return a ceramic Child’s Coffin, which was taken from the Gustavianum’s collection decades ago without authorization.

The coffin was scientifically excavated in 1920 at Gurob, Egypt by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt under the direction of Flinders Petrie. The publication Unseen Images: Archive Photographs in the Petrie Museum (2008) includes a photograph of the coffin in the process of excavation. There, it is noted that the coffin was sent to Uppsala as part of the division of finds, a system that distributed ownership of excavated artifacts. Curatorial staff at the Gustavianum confirmed that the coffin was sent to the Victoria Museum of Egyptian Antiquities at Uppsala University, as it was then called, in 1922. The museum catalogued and numbered it. The coffin has been missing from the museum since at least 1970.

“It has been wonderful working with our colleagues in Uppsala on this matter, and it is always gratifying to see a work of art return to its rightful owner, said Victoria Reed, Sadler Senior Curator of Provenance. “In this case, we were fortunate to have an excavation photograph showing where and when the coffin was found, so that we could begin to correct the record. Anytime we deaccession and restitute a work of art from the museum, it serves as a good reminder that we need to exercise as much diligence as possible as we build the collection.”

The MFA purchased the coffin in 1985 from an agent who claimed to represent the Swedish artist Eric Ståhl (1918–1999). The MFA was given a letter purportedly written by Ståhl, which describes how he excavated the coffin himself at Amada, Egypt, in 1937. For years, the MFA published the coffin online and in printed catalogues with this provenance. Ståhl, however, is not known to have participated in any excavation in Egypt. The MFA was also given authentications for the coffin from experts in Sweden that now appear to be falsified.

Curatorial staff noted the discrepancy between the MFA’s provenance and the evidence offered by the excavation photograph. This prompted an investigation into the coffin’s acquisition and ownership history. As part of this investigation, the MFA reached out to colleagues at the Gustavianum. The two institutions cooperatively and amicably exchanged information about the coffin and came to the same conclusion, namely that it was taken from Uppsala University’s collection without authorization and should be returned.

Provenance Research

The MFA is a leader in the field of provenance research, employing a full-time Curator for Provenance, who 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. 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. A list of ownership resolutions at the Museum since the late 1990s can be found in Ownership Resolutions.


Karen Frascona