The long way home for “looted” art gets shorter

This article is part of our latest special section on museums, dedicated to new artists, new audiences and new perspectives on exhibitions.


BOSTON. At a time when so-called stolen art and how to get it back to its rightful owners has become a major issue for museums, Victoria Reid’s role at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is more important than ever.

As a museum curator by origin, she is responsible for leading efforts to verify the ownership history of an object and oversee restitution if it has been deemed to have been obtained illegally—generally stolen during war, looted during conquest or colonization, or bought through coercion. . sales.

The task at the Museum of Fine Arts is high. The museum, founded in 1870, now has over 500,000 works of art in its collection. Since 1997, 14 claims for 43 objects have been settled either by return or by mutual settlements.

But the Boston Museum is hardly alone. In recent years, the issue of repatriation has roiled the museum world, generating headlines that museums are responding to claims from individuals and countries regarding items that are said to have been stolen, dug up illegally, or mis-imported or exported.

Pitfalls and complications are many, as evidenced by a group of Beninese bronzes that occupy an awkward place in the Museum of Fine Arts.

For the first time, the museum, through Ms. Reid, acknowledged that the statues should be returned to Nigeria, where they came from.

“These are undeniably stolen works of art,” Ms Reed said, standing at the Benin Kingdom Gallery as visitors milled around late Friday night. “They are unacceptable under our debt collection policy and we are prepared to commit ourselves to returning them.”

To complicate matters, of the 32 bronzes on display that date from the 16th to 19th centuries, the museum owns only four, which were donated by New York collector Robert Owen Lehman Jr., also known as Robin. He still owns the remaining 28, which are on loan, and has not spoken publicly about the collection he acquired through dealers and auctions. He could not be contacted for comment.

Mr. Lehman, an 85-year-old former documentary filmmaker, is the son of prominent American banker Robert Owen Lehman Sr., longtime head of Lehman Brothers, who died in 1969. The Robert Lehman Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The art, named after the elder Mr. Lehman, is a large collection of art collected by the family.

The Kingdom of Benin was located in what is now southwestern Nigeria. In 2012, when the Boston Museum announced a donation of bronzes, Yusuf Abdallah Usman, CEO of the National Commission on Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, sent a letter to the museum asking them to “bring these works home.”

“We would like to keep the collection together,” Ms. Reid said in a recent interview. “In the meantime, we wanted to keep them in the eye so our audience could talk about them.”

While the return of a work of art is the exception rather than the rule, exceptions are often newsworthy and significant.

Last fall, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts reached an agreement to return View of Beverwijk (1646) by Salomon van Ruysdael, a Dutch painting stolen during World War II, to the heirs of Ferenc Chorin, a Jewish Hungarian collector, who gave it for safekeeping. in a Budapest bank before fleeing the country in 1944. The bank reported that Mr. Chorin’s vault was emptied in January 1945 during the siege of Budapest. His heirs plan to sell the work at Christie’s auction in New York in June.

The moral choices underlying such stories motivate Ms. Reed. “We can’t be government agencies and display stolen art,” she said.

Although the issue of legal property rights has been in front of our eyes for ten years, it has recently become more acute. In November Denver Art Museum returned four works to Cambodia, including a bronze bell dating from the first century BC, which was in his collection for 20 years.

That same month, the Met donated three works to the National Collection of Nigeria, and earlier this year a Greek bust of a veiled woman’s head dated to 350 AD by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

In Boston, Ms. Reid’s top job, working with all departments, is structurally unusual; more typical,” said Gary Tinterow, director Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is that each department does its own origin research. Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum, wrote in an email that his museum is also developing a role focused solely on lineage research “to enhance our ability to carry out this important work.”

Reid, 48, has been with the Boston Museum since 2003 and has been in her current position since 2010. Mark Masurovsky, founder of the Holocaust art restitution project who has worked with her on several occasions, said she made a “huge difference”.

“She was a pragmatic spokesperson for how museums should conduct their business,” he said.

Agnes Peresteghi, a lawyer for the Horin family who worked with Ms Reed on the return of the Dutch painting, said the public has become more aware of restitution issues in recent years. “The tide has changed,” she said.

This is largely due to the Internet, which has changed this area. “Open digitized archives have changed everything,” said Mr. Masurovsky.

Mr. Tinterow, director of the museum in Houston, noted that the digitization of declassified World War II archives, in particular, “has opened our eyes and made it easier to work in this area.” But origins, he says, often remain a dark area.

“We are doing our best,” he said. “Unlike cars and houses, there is no county clerk to register the artwork.”

Recentness and geography are two parameters that Ms. Reid takes into account when reviewing incoming work. Some categories, such as recent American art and lower value items, receive less attention because they are considered low risk, if not zero.

Old objects made as multiples are tricky. “A candlestick or a cup is almost impossible to examine,” she said. “There are fewer paper trails for some objects.”

When it comes to works of art that are likely to have a patchy history of ownership, museums can be relegated to the role of defendant if someone makes a claim or new information comes to light. (In about half of those cases, the museum will settle the claim financially, effectively paying to keep the work in the collection, Ms. Read said.)

The returned van Ruisdael painting had a hazy history until recently. A 1988 publication on Hungarian military casualties listed this work, but it had the wrong corresponding image, and the museum was unaware that the painting was considered missing.

But the investigation of Ms. Peresteghi and the Horin family, as well as the independent work of the scholar Sandor Juhash, exposed the story of View of Beverwijk, which was presented to the museum. “It was a clear case,” Ms Reid said of the restitution.

Ms. Reed also conducts internal investigations herself. This was the case for the two terracotta figurines of Djenne, which were bequeathed to the museum in 2012 as part of a larger collection that the museum announced in February that will be returned to Mali.

One of the terracotta figurines depicts a sheep, the other a kneeling figure. They were made sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries.

It took Miss Reed seven years to find out their origin and arrange for restitution; from the same collection, the museum also returned eight items to Nigeria.

For years, the focus of restitution has been Europe, especially items looted during World War II. But in recent times the lens has expanded to countries that were once colonies of European powers.

Mali has seen significant repatriation lately, said Issa Konfuru, Mali’s ambassador to the United Nations. More than 900 items were returned to the country in November, part of a shipment seized by the Department of Homeland Security at the Port of Houston in 2009.

More than half of them are already on display at the National Museum of Mali in the country’s capital, Bamako.

“We had a grand ceremony at home to welcome them,” Mr Konfuru said. “It means a lot to the Malians to see these things coming home.”