The MFA’s collection includes works of ancient art from around the world, in particular from the Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Near East; Asia and Southeast Asia; and Central and South America. It has long been recognized that antiquities and archeological material are at high risk for illicit excavation and smuggling. The MFA deplores the looting of archeological sites and the trafficking of cultural property, and pays particular attention to the provenance of its ancient works of art. This page provides information on the research the MFA has conducted on its antiquities, and the ownership resolutions reached between the Museum and foreign nations for illicit cultural property.
Since 2008, the MFA has committed to accepting only those archaeological materials that can be traced outside their country of origin by 1970, the year of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This practice is in keeping with guidelines issued by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD); any exceptions the Museum makes are posted to a registry maintained by the AAMD. It is hoped that by accepting only well-documented antiquities, the MFA will play a role in diminishing the market demand for illicitly-excavated and trafficked materials.
List of Works
The Museum makes every effort to obtain and verify provenance documentation at the time an acquisition is made. New information, however, can come to light after the MFA has added a work of art to its collection, and in some cases this information calls into question our original assessment of the object’s provenance. The works of art on this list have been acquired since 2008. At the time they were accepted, they were believed to be traceable to a date earlier than 1970. The MFA has since uncovered facts that cast doubts on these accounts of their ownership history. A falsified provenance can be an indication of recent archaeological looting. We list these objects in the hopes of drawing attention to them and bringing in additional information about their likely place of origin.
- Early Byzantine bracelet with a Roman cameo of Medusa
- Eight wagon attachments
- Table leg (trapezophoros with goat head)
On February 8, 2022, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) reached an agreement with the Republic of Mali, transferring ownership of two objects of Malian origin that are believed to have been the subject of illicit excavation and trafficking.
The two Djenné terracotta figures are archaeological materials known to be at high risk for theft and looting. Fragments of one—the Figure of a Ewe—were probably discovered at the village of Dary, Mali, around 1986 or 1987. The other, a Kneeling Figure, is said to come from a tumulus near Djenné, Mali, in the late 1980s. The MFA exhibited both objects in the 1990s, at which time they were on loan from collector William Teel. He acquired the objects in good faith in the United States and bequeathed them to the MFA in 2012.
Recognizing that these objects might have been illegally removed from Mali, and that their ownership and export would be regulated by Mali’s Law No. 85-40/AN-RM Concerning the Protection and Promotion of the National Cultural Heritage of 1985, the MFA contacted the Ministry of Culture in 2013 to seek its authorization before proceeding with their acquisition. The Ministry of Culture responded that the export of these figures had not been approved. Upon receipt of this information, the MFA began to arrange for the return of the objects to Mali. Discussions continued from that time until 2022, when the agreement between Mali and the MFA was finalized, allowing for the restitution of the figures.
2021—Group of Italian Vessels
On December 16, 2021, the MFA deaccessioned nine ancient vessels and transferred them to the New York County District Attorney’s office for return to the Republic of Italy. This was in response to an investigation, led by the District Attorney, into the activities of dealer Edoardo Almagià. The works came to the MFA in 1995 as a gift from two private collectors, who had purchased them from Almagià earlier that year. They had no documented provenance prior to the 1995 sale. The vessels’ distinctive appearance, and the spiked handles in particular, suggests that the group came from the archaeological site of Crustumerium, near Rome, which is known to have been heavily looted in the 1980s and 1990s. The Museum first learned of an Italian-led investigation into Almagià in 2010. At that time, the MFA verified the known ownership history of the vessels and ensured images and provenance were available online and easily accessible, should anyone have new information or wish to make a claim.
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.
On September 22, 2011, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Republic of Turkey finalized an agreement transferring ownership of the 2nd century, Roman Imperial sculpture Weary Herakles (MFA accession no. 1981.783) to the Turkish government.
The MFA acquired a half-interest in the sculpture, which shows the head and torso of the mythological hero Herakles, in 1981 from a dealer in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1990, while the object was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a scholar noted its similarity to the bottom half of a Herakles sculpture that had been excavated in 1980 in Perge, Turkey (held by the Antalya Museum, Turkey). Shortly thereafter, the Turkish government claimed ownership of the MFA sculpture. In 1992, casts were made of the MFA torso and the sculpture excavated from Perge. The two pieces fit together, and it was determined that they originally formed one sculpture which was broken apart.
When and where the torso was excavated has not been documented. According to information provided by the dealer who sold the Weary Herakles to the MFA, his mother acquired it around 1950 from a German dealer, who had bought it from a European private collection. This account has never been verified.
Discussions with Turkey began in the early 1990s regarding a solution that would allow the two halves to be reunited. After the MFA acquired full interest in its part of the sculpture in 2004, these discussions resumed. In 2011, the MFA deaccessioned the Weary Herakles for transfer to the Turkish government, and the object returned to Turkey.
2006—Italian Ministry of Culture Agreement
On Thursday, September 28, 2006, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (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. 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 have already 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).
The objects transferred to Italy from the MFA are:
- Two-handled vessel (nestoris)
- Oil flask (lekythos)
- Water jar (kalpis-hydria) depicting Apollo making a libation before gods and goddesses
- Two-handled jar (pelike) depicting Phineus with the sons of Boreas
- Water jar (hydria)
- Vase for bath water (loutrophoros) depicting Pelops and Hippodameia in a chariot
- Mixing bowl (bell-krater)
- Oil flask (lekythos)
- Two-handled jar (amphora) depicting the murder of Atreus
- Triangular support for a candelabrum shaft, decorative colonette, or small basin
- Two-handled vessel (nestoris) depicting athletes in conversation with girls
- Mixing bowl (bell-krater) with Thracian hunters