Thursday, June 13, 2013

Museum of Fine Arts Curator Offers Due Diligence Model, Saying "Ignorance is No Excuse"

The Weary Herakles has long been a poster child for the problems surrounding undocumented antiquities. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) acquired a partial interest in the top half of the statue in 1981 and then a full interest in 2004 under cloudy circumstances. Archaeologists in Turkey excavated the bottom half of the sculpture in 1980. But the dubious provenance surrounding the MFA's top portion of the Weary Herakles is that it belonged to the antiquities dealer's mother, who reluctantly accepted the sculpture from a German art dealer in repayment of a debt. The mother later died, and Iranian officials swiped the documents. Or so the story goes.

The tall tale of the Weary Herakles is retold in Victoria Reed's new article appearing in the DePaul Journal of Art, Technology & Intellectual Property Law (Spring 2013, Vol. 23, No.2). Reed is an expert in provenance investigations. She is the Curator for Provenance at the MFA. Her article titled "Due Diligence, Provenance Research, and the Acquisition Process at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" presents an honest look at the MFA's past collecting errors and the institution's current efforts to steer a different course.

The MFA agreed to repatriate the Weary Herakles statue in 2011. "In order to avoid such time-consuming and costly scenarios in our future," Reed argues that "it is necessary for the MFA not to repeat the mistakes of our past." She notes that museums generally "turned a blind eye to gaps in provenance and other red flags, such as the names of known victims and perpetrators of Nazi looting, fanciful ownership histories, or indications of illegal export." They "failed to ask specific questions about the origins of their purchases and gifts." "Today, ignorance is no excuse," Reed plainly writes.

The provenance curator outlines the MFA's current practice of questioning provenance, export, and import information before it acquires or borrows a piece, evaluating not only the information supplied to the museum but also the source of that information. The article presents a model of due diligence that may help other cultural institutions avoid traps for the unwary.

This post is researched, written, and published on the blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire at Text copyrighted 2010-2013 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT INFORMATION: