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.
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.
2022—Portrait of a Man (61.1136)
In 2022, the MFA transferred a Late Imperial marble Portrait of a Man to the Republic of Italy, from where it is believed to have been stolen during World War II.
The marble head dates to the 3rd or 4th century C.E. Its features were re-cut in antiquity from an earlier portrait, and it may represent the emperor Maximianus Herculius. It was found in December 1931 at Minturno, Italy, during a series of excavations undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania and the Superintendency of Campania in Naples. The head was published, inventoried and illustrated in a catalogue of sculptures from the excavations in 1938. During World War II, a number of archaeological finds and other works of art stored at Minturno were stolen, probably by German troops, or were otherwise dispersed in the upheaval of war. The Portrait of a Man was almost certainly taken at this time. After it was photographed in the 1930s, the head suffered damage and lost its nose.
The Museum purchased the sculpture from the Swiss gallery Münzen und Medaillen in 1961, with no documentation of its collecting history. In July 2019, Professor Irene Bald Romano of the University of Arizona alerted MFA staff that the head had gone missing from Italy during World War II. This information prompted an investigation of the sculpture’s provenance. After verifying its excavation at Minturno and the loss of artwork there during the war, the Museum wrote in September 2019 to the Italian Ministry of Culture to inform them of the sculpture’s whereabouts. In September 2020, the Ministry affirmed the MFA’s findings and requested that the head be returned.
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 (1995.820–1995.828)
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.
2021—View of Beverwijk (1982.396)
In October 2021, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) reached an agreement with the heirs of Ferenc Chorin to return the painting View of Beverwijk by Salomon van Ruysdael, which was looted during World War II.
The painting belonged to the Jewish collector Ferenc Chorin (1879 – 1964) of Budapest, who deposited it along with other works of art at the Hungarian Commercial Bank of Pest in 1943. Chorin and his family were persecuted by National Socialist forces, fled Hungary in 1944, and settled in New York in 1947. At the end of World War II, the bank reported that the contents of Chorin’s deposit had gone missing in January 1945, during the Siege of Budapest. Despite the family’s efforts to locate the contents of the bank vault in the postwar years, they never recovered the Ruysdael. The painting was included in a 1998 publication on Hungarian war losses, but because it was published with an incorrect image and description, the MFA was not aware that the View of Beverwijk had belonged to Chorin or was considered missing.
The Museum acquired the painting in 1982 from a London dealer with no information about its history other than that it had come from a Swiss collection. The work’s provenance between 1945 and 1982 remains untraced.
In 2019, scholar Sándor Juhász notified the MFA that the View of Beverwijk once belonged to Frigyes Glück of Budapest, in whose collection it had been published in 1924. This new information, posted on the MFA’s website, allowed the Chorin heirs to locate their family’s painting—known to have come from the Glück collection—in 2021.
2017—Seven pieces of porcelain (2017.76–2017.82)
In March, 2017 the MFA reached an agreement with the Estate of Emma Budge, allowing the Museum to retain seven pieces of 18th century German porcelain that were sold in Berlin in 1937.
The commedia dell’arte figures, made by the porcelain manufactories Höchst, Fürstenburg, and Fulda, all belonged to Emma Lazarus Budge (1852 – 1937), who built a large collection of decorative arts in her home in Hamburg. Upon her death in 1937, she left the disposition of her art collection to her estate executors, specifying that she did not wish the collection to be sold within National Socialist Germany. Mrs. Budge and all of her estate executors were Jewish.
Nevertheless, on October 4–6, 1937, a large portion of Emma Budge’s art collection was auctioned in Berlin. The proceeds from the sale were very probably credited to the account of the Budge estate at M. M. Warburg Bank in Hamburg. The settlement of the estate, however, was delayed until 1939. In the meantime, Warburg Bank was Aryanized, or sold to non-Jewish owners. Several of Mrs. Budge’s estate executors were dismissed from their roles. Many of her heirs, who were Jewish, fled Germany. Those who remained were subject to persecution. The estate funds that were ultimately disbursed were placed into tightly-controlled, blocked accounts to which the heirs did not have full access. Thus, as the direct result of Nazi persecution, the proceeds from the sale were never realized.
The seven pieces of porcelain at the MFA were purchased at the 1937 auction by Otto and Magdalena Blohm, likewise porcelain collectors from Hamburg, and probably acquaintances of Emma Budge. Mrs. Blohm moved to New York after World War II, bringing the porcelain collection with her. Edward and Kiyi Pflueger acquired the figures from the Blohm collection and bequeathed them to the MFA in 2006.
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 (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 (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.
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.
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.