This article is part of our latest special section on Museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.
BOSTON — At a time when so-called looted works of art and how to return them to their rightful owners has become a major challenge for museums, Victoria Reed’s role at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston could not be more crucial.
As the museum’s curator for provenance, she is responsible for leading the effort to verify the history of an object’s ownership and oversee restitution if it was deemed to have been obtained illegally — typically, stolen during warfare, plundered during conquests or colonization or purchased through forced you go out.
The task at the Museum of Fine Arts is a tall one. The museum, founded in 1870, now holds more than 500,000 artworks in its collection. Since 1997, 14 claims involving 43 objects have been resolved either by returns or through financial settlements.
But the Boston museum is hardly alone. The issue of repatriation has roiled the museum world in recent years, generating headlines about museums reacting to claims from individuals and countries regarding objects that are said to have been stolen, illegally excavated, or improperly imported or exported.
The pitfalls and complications are many, as demonstrated by a group of Benin bronzes that occupy an uncomfortable limbo at the Museum of Fine Arts.
For the first time, the museum, through Ms. Reed, has acknowledged that the statues should be returned to Nigeria, where they originated.
“These are indisputably looted works of art,” said Ms. Reed, standing in the Benin Kingdom gallery as visitors milled about late on a recent Friday afternoon. “They are not acceptable under our collections policy, and we are prepared to pledge to restitute them.”
The situation is complicated by the fact that of the 32 bronzes on display, which date from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the museum only owns four, which were donated by the New York collector Robert Owen Lehman Jr., also known as Robin. He still owns the remaining 28, which are on loan, and has not spoken publicly about the collection, which he acquired through dealers and at auctions. He could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Lehman, an 85-year-old former documentary filmmaker, is the son of the renowned American banker Robert Owen Lehman Sr., the longtime head of Lehman Brothers, who died in 1969. The Robert Lehman Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is named after the elder Mr. Lehman, features some of the large trove of artworks that the family has collected.
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The Kingdom of Benin was in what is now southwestern Nigeria. In 2012, when the donation of the bronzes was announced by the Boston museum, Yusuf Abdallah Usman, the director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, sent a letter asking the museum to “return these works to their home.”
“We would like to keep the collection together,” Ms. Reed said in a recent interview. “And in the meantime, we wanted to keep them on view for our audience to have conversations about them.”
Though returning an artwork is the exception rather than the rule, the exceptions are often newsworthy and significant.
Last fall, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston reached an agreement to return “View of Beverwijk” (1646) by Salomon van Ruysdael, a Dutch painting stolen during World War II, to the heirs of Ferenc Chorin, a Jewish Hungarian collector who deposited it in a Budapest bank before fleeing the country in 1944. The bank reported that Mr. Chorin’s vault had been emptied in January 1945 during the siege of Budapest. His heirs to him plan to sell the work at Christie’s New York in June.
The moral choices underlying such stories are what motivates Ms. Reed. “We can’t be public institutions and displaying stolen artwork,” she said.
Though the issue of rightful ownership has been looming for a decade, the intensity has recently increased. In November, the Denver Art Museum returned four works to Cambodia, including a bronze bell dating to the first century BC, which had been in its collection for 20 years.
That same month, the Met transferred three works to the Nigerian National Collections, and, earlier this year, a Greek bust of a veiled woman’s head dating to 350 BC was seized from the Met, where it was on loan, and returned to Libya by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
In Boston, Ms. Reed’s senior role working with all the departments is structurally unusual; more typical, said Gary Tinterow, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and a former curator at the Met, is that each department handles its own provenance research. Christoph Heinrich, the director of the Denver Art Museum, wrote in an email that his museum was also developing a role focused solely on provenance research “to expand our ability to do this important work.”
Ms. Reed, 48, has worked at the Boston museum since 2003, and she has been in her current position since 2010. Marc Masurovsky, a founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project who has worked with her several times, said she had made “ a huge difference.”
“She’s been a pragmatic spokesperson for the way museums should handle their affairs,” he said.
Agnes Peresztegi, a lawyer for the Chorin family who worked with Ms. Reed on the return of the Dutch painting, said the public has become more familiar with restitution issues in recent years. “The tide has changed,” she said.
That is thanks, in large part, to the internet, which has transformed the field. “Open, digitized archives have changed everything,” Mr. Masurovsky said.
Mr. Tinterow, the Houston museum director, noted that the digitization of declassified World War II archives in particular “has opened our eyes and facilitated so much work in this area.” But provenance, he said, is often still a murky realm.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “Unlike cars and houses, there’s no county clerk to register a work of art.”
Recency and geography are two of the parameters Ms. Reed considers when vetting incoming work. Certain categories, such as recent American artworks and lower-value items, receive less scrutiny because they are considered low-risk, if not no-risk.
Older objects made as multiples are difficult. “A candlestick or a teacup is almost impossible to research,” she said. “There’s less of a paper trail for certain objects.”
When it comes to artworks that likely have a checkered ownership history, museums can be placed in a reactive role if someone makes a claim or new information comes to light. (In roughly half of such cases, the museum resolves the claim financially, effectively paying to keep a work in the collection, Ms. Reed said.)
The returned van Ruysdael painting had a murky history until recently. A 1988 publication on Hungarian war losses listed the work, but it included the wrong corresponding image, and the museum did not know the painting was considered missing.
But sleuthing by Ms. Peresztegi and the Chorin family, as well as independent work by the scholar Sándor Juhász, laid bare the history of “View of Beverwijk,” which was presented to the museum. “It was a clear-cut case,” Ms. Reed said of the restitution.
Ms. Reed also generates internal investigations herself. That was the case with two Djenné terra-cotta figures that were bequeathed to the museum in 2012 as part of a larger collection, which the museum announced in February would be returned to Mali.
One of the terra-cotta pieces depicts an ewe, the other a kneeling figure. They were made sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries.
It took Ms. Reed seven years to unravel their provenance and arrange for restitution; from the same collector’s trove, the museum also returned eight objects to Nigeria.
For years, the focus of restitution has been on Europe, especially pieces looted during World War II. But the lens has widened of late to countries that were eleven colonies of European powers.
Mali has seen significant repatriation activity of late, said Issa Konfourou, the ambassador of Mali to the United Nations. In November, more than 900 objects were returned to the country, part of a shipment that was confiscated by the Department of Homeland Security at the Port of Houston in 2009.
More than half of them are already on view at the National Museum of Mali in the country’s capital, Bamako.
“We had a huge ceremony back home, to welcome them back,” Mr. Konfourou said. “It means a lot for Malians to see these things come home.”