Rebuilding Reputations, One Artifact at a Time

August 26th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Museums' recent policies provide a positive blueprint.

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The Responsibility Project

A recent Associated Press article details the lasting damage done to dealers and collectors of Indian artifacts in the Southwest following a sting operation back in the summer of 2009. Then, an undercover informant blew the whistle on an alleged black market of Native American grave robbers; now, legitimate dealers are struggling to rebuild their reputations while arguing that any wrongdoings came from a “tiny fringe element.”

Despite this setback, artifact collectors, dealers and museums overall have made great strides to offset negative perceptions about peddling stolen wares. In January, we wrote about museums that had voluntarily returned artwork that belonged elsewhere. More recently, The Boston Globe reported that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to pay restitution to the heir of a Jewish art dealer killed at Auschwitz after determining that Nazis had likely stolen a 17th-century Dutch painting that once belonged to him. And earlier this year, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return a 17th century painting, “Landscape with Cottage and Figures” by Pieter Molijn, to the heirs of Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, whose entire 1400-piece collection was looted by the Nazis.

It’s encouraging to see museums proactively researching works with vague provenance in an effort to make amends. In fact, the MFA’s website includes pages dedicated to explaining its ongoing efforts, linking both to a list of works that are priorities for further research and also to claims that have already been resolved since the museum started actively researching questions in provenance in 1998. (The Resolved Claims listings themselves provide a fascinating glimpse into the collections of former owners and their seized paintings.) On the site, you can also find links to other websites maintained by international organizations committed to searching for and recovering art lost during World War II.

Do you think these stories of restitution bode well for the Indian artifact dealers trying to rebuild their own reputations? Are there further actions they should be taking? 

(A portion of this story was previously published as “Many Happy Returns” on The Responsibility Project on 7/12/11)