While attending a major art fair, a representative of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), was offered the chance to purchase a 17th century German pendant. The piece had already been sold three times in the 20th century, and it had been vetted through a major stolen-art database. But before the museum bought the piece, Victoria Reed, the MFA’s Monica S. Sadler Curator for Provenance, dug a bit deeper and found that it had been stolen in World War II from a museum in Gotha, Germany. Instead of being sold, the pendant was restituted back to the museum by the art dealer.
Provenance has long been a part of museums and art history, says Nancy Yeide, head of curatorial records at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. But over time, the bar has been raised. After 1970, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released a convention to address the threat of illegally obtained archeological artifacts, museums had to apply more stringent acquisition standards to those objects, according to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR).
Then in 1998, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) released its first Nazi-era provenance research guidelines, which member museums were to follow. “With the lifting of the Iron Curtain some 10 years prior, a wealth of new information started to come to light, enabling museums, independent scholars, and claimants to initiate intensive research into works stolen by the Nazis,” says AAMD’s Christine Anagnos.
Liability. Museums can be subject to restitution claims and legal liable if they are found to hold stolen art in their collections. The J. Paul Getty Museum in California has received much publicity for having to give up more than 40 ancient art items that were illegally procured by a prior owner. In some cases, there was reported evidence that the pieces were suspect, but the museum acquired them anyway. Getty is not alone. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the MFA are among other museums that have had to return items.