This page presents the results of research undertaken by the MFA on the provenance of works of art removed from their place of origin under certain inequitable conditions. Many works of art were stolen, forcibly sold, or otherwise taken without the consent of their owners as the direct result of colonialism, defined here as the occupation and exploitation by one power (usually a government) over a group of independent people. Some objects were confiscated as spoils of war. Other works of art were removed during periods of colonial rule, often though not always by European administrative officials, scientists, missionaries, and private collectors. Similar practices led to the removal of Indigenous cultural property in North America and elsewhere; the provenance of Indigenous cultural heritage of the Americas will be the subject of a separate web page.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most national and international legislation had not yet been enacted to regulate the ownership and export of cultural property. Even if such colonial-era transactions were considered legitimate by the letter of the law, in many cases they were tantamount to theft or were otherwise in violation of the ethics of the time. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) for example, the pillaging of artwork during conflict was increasingly prohibited in Europe. Yet while fighting abroad, European troops took sculptures, textiles, sacred objects, and more.
List of works
One goal of the MFA’s research on colonial-era provenance is to identify objects in the collection that may have been looted, forcibly sold, or stolen during 19th- and early 20th-century periods of conflict or colonial occupation. The objects featured on the list below have been identified with such events. The Museum has listed them here to draw attention to their contentious histories; we invite new information about and conversations around these works of art. This list is not definitive, and will be updated as more information becomes available.
- Ancestor figure
- Art of the Benin Kingdom
- Four Greek Paintings
- Incense Burner
- Tolai Animal Carving
- Woodblock for Printing Tibetan Buddhist Text
The MFA acknowledges that the life-stories of many of the objects in its collection are inextricable from imperialism, colonialism, and racism. We also recognize that today people may disagree about the ethics that surround the display and interpretation of such objects. Yet with the privilege of being stewards of these works of art comes the responsibility of sharing their stories broadly. All available provenance information for objects in the Museum’s collection can be accessed through the MFA’s Collections Search. In cases where we know when and how an object left its place of origin, that information is included in the provenance text. These records undergo continual review, and we update them as new information becomes available.