Museums USA

MFA Boston uncovers and returns stolen work to France

A routine loan request reveals a Roman statuette was taken from a museum in Douai in 1901

The statuette of Antinoüs was returned to the Musée de La Chartreuse in Douai. Photo: Johan Ben Azzouz

A routine check into an antiquity’s history has uncovered its stolen past, prompting a swift return to a French museum by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). The MFA delivered the bronze statuette, which had been in its collection since 1904, to the Musée de la Chartreuse in Douai, northern France in January, after legal documents were completed to finalise the exchange. “We don’t want to hold onto, nor do we have any business holding onto, stolen objects,” says the MFA’s full-time provenance researcher, Victoria Reed.

In 2011, the Forum Antique of Bavay, an archaeological museum in northern France, contacted the Boston museum asking to borrow the item, which was identified in the MFA collection as a statute of Mercury or Hermes, for an upcoming exhibition. When Reed checked the work’s ownership history, as is done for each work that is sought for a loan, she discovered that in 1901, the Gallo-Roman statuette had disappeared in an unsolved theft from the Douai museum. The object had a rich publication history; in 1861, a French tourist guide to Douai proclaimed it “a charming work of art of the most delicate workmanship”.

The MFA immediately contacted the Douai museum, which provided documentation surrounding the theft and a 19th-century photograph of its lost statuette. Because areas of damage on the MFA statue were identical to damage shown in the photo, there was “little doubt” that the object missing from Douai was the MFA statuette, according to the Boston museum; its trustees voted in October 2012 to return it.

The MFA did not ask for anything in return, Reed says. “We review the provenance of all objects going out on loan, in particular anything going overseas, and with special attention to European works and antiquities,” she adds. “We have to prioritize how much scrutiny we’ll give an object.”

Anne Labourdette, the curator at the Douai museum, says she was impressed that the MFA “had staff to conduct provenance research and that it did the job so thoroughly”. In contrast “unfortunately”, many French museums lack budgets and staff to conduct costly provenance research. “Most of the museums in France are too small for this,” she says, adding that French law would complicate efforts to return stolen works if they are part of a national museum collection. The Douai museum actually owns two paintings that it has determined were stolen during the Second World War II, but they are not yet displayed on its website, which might help identify the former owners. However, it recently recovered a painting by the French realist Jules Breton that it had lost to theft during the First World War.

The small statue, dating from the first or second century AD, is believed to have been unearthed by a peasant around 1780 in the countryside near Le Quesnoy, France, near the Belgian border. The find became part of the fabled antiquities collection of Augustin Carlier, which the Douai museum acquired in 1849. It identified the statue as Antinoüs, the beautiful youth whom a grief-stricken Roman emperor Hadrian deified after he drowned in the Nile.

The curator Anne Labourdette watches as the statuette is unpacked in Douai. Photo: Johan Ben Azzouz
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