The bust, sculpted by Thomas Crawford of early education reformer Charles Brooks and stolen from the Massachusetts State House in the 1980s, is sitting in LACMA storage
There has been a lot of missing and stolen art returned to rightful owners in the past few years. There’s the Corinth painting returned to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, as well as more than a dozen works which were stolen by Nazis, including some held for decades in collections at the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, which have been given back to Jewish families.
And in Boston, this week the Museum of Fine Arts made a big announcement regarding its own latest attempt to make amends. From their official media release on the matter:
Boston (MFA) has transferred the Late Imperial sculpture 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 sculpture 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, who has published on sculptures from Minturno and is working on a publication on the fate of antiquities during the Nazi era, 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 to the Italian Ministry of Culture to inform them of the sculpture’s whereabouts in September 2019. The Ministry affirmed the MFA’s findings in July 2020 and requested that the head be returned.
In its release, the MFA also noted that it “follows the highest standards of professional practice in regards to issues of ownership and in its response to claims for works in the collection.” Furthermore, “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 same cannot be said of Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As Dig readers may recall, years ago I discovered that a bust, sculpted by Thomas Crawford of early education reformer Charles Brooks and stolen from the Massachusetts State House in the 1980s, is sitting in LACMA storage. I like to bring it up when people are buzzing about related issues, always urging them to read about the bust and its importance in one of many columns I have written over the past several years.
We’ll get it back to Mass eventually. The only questions are How long will it take? and Who is going to look the most foolish when I’m smiling next to Charles Brooks after he’s returned to Beacon Hill?