Abstract: How to Increase Diligence and Build a Museum Collection: Case Studies from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


For much of the twentieth century, those involved in the art trade did not ask many questions about provenance (history of ownership). As long as the origins of works of art were kept confidential, there was no way for museums, collectors, or dealers themselves to find out whether the masterpieces that they were acquiring had been freshly looted, smuggled, stolen, or forcibly sold; or whether, on the contrary, these works of art were legally on the market.  By turning a blind eye to questions of provenance, both the legitimate market and non-profit institutions like art museums have found themselves in possession of works of art to which they do not have good title. As a result, in recent years, American art museums have had to deaccession works of art, removing them from their collections for return to their rightful owners, including indigenous groups and source nations.

For legal and ethical reasons, no one participating in the art trade today can ignore issues of provenance. This lecture will discuss provenance research at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), an encyclopedic museum of over 450,000 objects. It will examine case studies of works of art from the MFA that have been subject to restitution, repatriation, and financial settlements—for example, the Roman Imperial sculpture of Weary Herakles that was returned to the Republic of Turkey in 2011. The lecture will explore how, as the MFA continues to build its collection, we seek to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Emphasizing the importance of due diligence as part of the acquisition process, particularly when considering antiquities and archaeological material, this lecture will address the issue of increased responsibility and transparency in museum collecting.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Karl E. Meyer, The Plundered Past: The Story of the Illegal International Traffic in Works of Art (New York, 1973)

Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy:  The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (New York, 2007).

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (New York, 2011).

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