Sunday, July 14, 2013

The MFA of Boston, "Weary Herakles" and Repatriation

Figure 1. Weary Herakles, Accession number1981.783. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In my thesis (written in the summer of 2011), I discussed a case study involving the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) returning antiquities to Italy as an example of what I consider a successful repatriation, and I now want to discuss another example of a successful repatriation on behalf of the MFA.

Although the MFA returned multiple objects to Italy back in 2006, I still wondered about the case of the statue of the “Weary Herakles” (Figure 1) and at the publication of my thesis, the MFA was in the midst of negotiations concerning the piece.  I briefly discussed the “Weary Herakles” in my thesis as the epitome of the MFA’s previous reputation of an institution that acquired looted objects:

...the museum has faced criticism for decades on its acquisitions. One such example of a questionable acquisition is the case of the “Weary Herakles”, which the museum acquired in the 1980s (Renfrew 2000). Collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White gave the top half of a statue of Herakles to the museum, while at the same time the Antalya Museum in Turkey displayed the bottom half (Renfrew 2000). During archaeological excavations at the site of Perge, Turkey in 1980, archaeologists uncovered the bottom half. This came after hearing rumors that something was stolen from the site earlier in the same year, but despite evidence from plaster casts showing that the halves came together, for decades the MFA refused to return the top to Turkey (Renfrew 2000), because the MFA insisted that the bust could have been found any time since the Renaissance (BBC 2011c). In July 2011, the museum agreed to return the piece to Turkey (Edgers 2011), because the museum said that it was only presented with photographic and other evidence recently (BBC 2011c). I think the return of “Weary Herakles” and the posting of an acquisition policy helps the museums reputation.  (Please see the works cited in my thesis for bibliographical information in this excerpt)

Since acquiring the “Weary Herakles” the MFA posted its acquisition policy.  The policy outlines the steps a curator must take in order to ensure the quality of the acquisition and its history (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 2011a).  The steps include the following:

·         The curator will make every effort to examine the work of art in order to determine if it falls within the museum’s mission
  • ·         Complete an acquisition proposal approximately four pages in length with an attached written recommendation, which must include:
o   Information about the object, including the current owner
o   A description of the object’s significance to the museum’s collection strategy and its relation to the collection
o   A defense of the acquisition price
o   Provenance information (previous ownerships and dates of ownerships)

This policy helps the museum to refrain from collecting objects with a questionable past and possibly looted or stolen origin.

In 2011, I interviewed a well-respected curator at the MFA, Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet (curator of Art of the Americas), and we discussed the museum’s collection practices.  She stressed that museum strictly adheres to the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) acquisition guidelines (outline after the 1970 UNESCO Convention).
In 2011, the MFA agreed to return the “Weary Herakles” to Turkey and the museum deaccessioned the piece. The MFA and Turkey came to this agreement through long negotiations and avoiding legal action.

I bring up the case of the “Weary Herakles” for a number of reasons, but primarily because through my analysis of repatriation, I concluded that one of the major factors leading to a successful repatriation is both parties coming to a cultural agreement.  In exchange for the top half of the statue, Turkey acknowledged that “…the MFA acquired the object in good faith and without knowledge of any ownership or title issues” (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 2011b).

My second reason for writing this is to make an observation of the MFA and declare hope.  I truly believe that the MFA is taking action to rebuild any tarnished reputation it might have and repatriate objects to their source nations.  I hope that the MFA continues its efforts to prevent newly looted material to become part of their collection, and to have a dialogue with countries about antiquity.  I also hope that other institutions take similar actions.

My last comment for this post, is that I hope now that the MFA returned the highly contested “Weary Herakles” that Turkey will loan the museum quality pieces of art in order to share cultural knowledge and allow a wider access to the public of its art and history.

As always, I am open to comments and concerns, specifically your opinion on the history of museums acquiring looted material and what you think on the MFA actions to return contested material.

For more information on this topic I highly recommend reading
Work Cited in this post
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
 2011a Acquisitions and Provenance Policy., accessed March 10, 2011.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
2011b Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Turkish Republic Reach Agreement for Transfer of Top Half of Weary Herakles to Turkey., accessed July 14, 2013.