How a museum curator deals with compensation for ‘looted’ art

This article is part of our latest Museum sectionwhich focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


BOSTON – At a time when stolen artwork and how to return it to its rightful owners has become a major challenge for museums, Victoria Reed’s role at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has never been more important.

As curator of the source, she is responsible for leading efforts to verify the object’s ownership history and overseeing recovery if it is deemed to have been obtained illegally—typically stolen during war, looting during conquests, colonization, or forced sales.

The task at the Museum of Fine Arts is a long one. The museum, founded in 1870, now has more than 500,000 works of art in its collection. Since 1997, 14 claims relating to 43 items have been resolved either by returns or through financial settlements.

But the Boston Museum is not alone. The issue of repatriation has caused upheaval in the museum world in recent years, spawning headlines around museums reacting to claims by individuals and nations about objects said to have been stolen, illegally excavated, or improperly imported or exported.

Pitfalls and complications abound, as evidenced by the collection of Benin bronzes that occupy an uncomfortable void in the Museum of Fine Arts.

For the first time, the Museum, through Mrs. Read, recognized the need to return the statues to Nigeria, where they originated.

“These are undisputed works of looted art,” said Ms. Reed, standing in the Benin Kingdom Gallery as visitors streamed through the late Friday afternoon. “It is not acceptable under our collection policy, and we are willing to pledge to take it back.”

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

Mr. Lehman, the 85-year-old former documentary filmmaker, is the son of famous American banker Robert Owen Lehman Sr., longtime president of Lehman Brothers, who passed away in 1969. The Robert Lehman wing of the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The art, named after Mr. Lyman the Elder, displays a large collection of artwork collected by the family.

The Kingdom of Benin was in what is now southwestern Nigeria. In 2012, when the Boston Museum announced the donation of bronzes, Yusuf Abdullah Usman, director general of the Nigeria National Commission on Museums and Antiquities, sent a letter asking the museum to “return these works to their homes.”

“We’d like to keep the group together,” Ms. Read said in a recent interview. “And in the meantime, we wanted to keep it on display for the public to have conversations about.”

Although returning artwork is the exception rather than the rule, exceptions are often important and newsworthy.

Last fall, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts reached an agreement to return Salomon van Ruysdel’s “View of Beverwijk” (1646), a Dutch painting stolen during World War II, to the heirs of Ferenc Koren, a Hungarian Jewish collector to collect in a bank in Budapest before fleeing the The country in 1944. The Bank reports that Mr. Koren’s vault was emptied in January 1945 during the Siege of Budapest. His heirs plan to sell the business at Christie’s New York in June.

It is the moral choices behind such stories that motivate Ms. Read. “We cannot be public institutions and display stolen art,” she said.

Although the issue of legitimate ownership has been looming for a decade, its severity has only recently increased. In November, the Denver Museum of Art is back Four works in Cambodia, including a bronze bell dating from the 1st century BC, which has been in his collection for 20 years.

That same month, the Met transferred three works to Nigerian national collections, and earlier this year, a Greek bust of a veiled woman’s head dating back to 350 BC. took over From the Met, where she was on loan, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office returned her to Libya.

In Boston, Ms. Reed’s lead role in working with all departments is structurally unusual. More typical, said Gary Tintero, Director Houston Museum of Fine Arts And a former trustee of the Met, is that each department handles its own source research. Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Museum of Art, wrote in an email that his museum was also developing a role focused solely on source research “to expand our ability to do this important work.”

Ms. Read, 48, has worked at the Boston Museum since 2003 and has been in her current position since 2010. Mark Masurovsky, founder of the Holocaust Art Recovery Project who has worked with her several times, said she made a “big difference”.

“She has been a pragmatic spokeswoman for the way museums should approach their affairs,” he said.

Agnes Pereztege, the Corinne family’s lawyer who worked with Ms Reade to return the Dutch painting, said the public had become more familiar with compensation issues in recent years. “The tide has changed,” she said.

This is thanks, in large part, to the Internet, which has changed this field. “Open Digital Archives has changed everything,” Mr. Masurovsky said.

Mr. Tenero, director of the Houston Museum, noted that digitizing the declassified World War II archives in particular “opened our eyes and facilitated a lot of work in this area.” But the source, he said, often remains a mysterious scientist.

“We are doing our best,” he said. “Unlike cars and homes, there is no county clerk to record a work of art.”

Modernity and geography are two factors that Ms. Read takes into account when examining upcoming work. Some categories, such as modern American artwork and low-value items, are subject to more scrutiny because they are considered low-risk, if not risk-free.

Old things made as hard multipliers. “It is almost impossible to find a candlestick or a cup of tea,” she said. “There’s a little bit of a paper trail for certain things.”

When it comes to artworks that likely have a checkered property history, museums can be put into an interactive role if someone makes a claim or new information emerges. (In about half of these cases, the museum resolves the claim financially, effectively paying to retain a work in the collection, Ms. Read said.)

Van Ruysdel’s painting had an obscure history until recently. A 1988 publication on Hungarian War casualties included the work, but included the wrong corresponding image, and the museum was unaware that the painting was considered missing.

But the espionage of Mrs. Bereztegi and the Corinne family, as well as the independent work of the scientist Sándor Juhász, revealed the history of the “Beverwijk View”, which was presented to the museum. “It was a clear case,” Ms Reed said of compensation.

Ms. Reed also conducts internal investigations herself. Such was the case with two of the Djenné terra-cotta figures who inherited from the museum in 2012 that as part of a larger collection, the museum announced in February that it would be returned to Mali.

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

It took Mrs. Read seven years to discover her source and arrange her recovery; From the same collection, the museum also returned eight pieces to Nigeria.

For years, the focus of restitution has been on Europe, especially the pieces looted during World War II. But the lens has recently widened to include countries that were once colonies of European powers.

Issa Konforou, Mali’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Mali has seen a lot of refugee repatriation activity recently. In November, more than 900 items were returned to the country, part of a shipment confiscated by the Department of Homeland Security in the Port of Houston in 2009.

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

“We had a huge party back home, to welcome them back,” said Mr. Konforo. “It means a lot to Malians to see these things come home.”