Boston MFA’s Provenance Research Reveals The Illicit Trade In African Antiquities
Last month the Boston Museum of Fine Arts voluntarily returned to Nigeria eight works of art — ranging from a terra-cotta Nok head dating to 500 B.C. to a wooden Kalabari memorial screen from the late 19th century — that the museum concluded had been stolen or looted.
The returns were not the result of a claim made by Nigeria but proactive research by the museum’s staff and curator of provenance Victoria Reed, who spent 18 months researching more than 300 objects bequeathed to the museum by William Teel, a wealthy benefactor and MFA overseer until his death in 2012.
As part of the review, Reed also checked the provenance of 108 objects previously donated by the Teels and the rest of the museum's African and Oceania collection. Most objects had clear title, Reed said. About five objects remain under review, including a terra-cotta sculpture of a Pregnant Ewe from Mali that has beendescribed as a looted fragment combined with a modern addition.
The MFA should be commended for the proactive research that led to the returns. For decades, the Boston museum bought looted antiquities and dismissed questions about those objects from foreign countries, academics and investigative reporters – showing little regard for the public trust that comes with tax-exempt status. While there is more work to be done on the MFA's collection, the museum's recent behavior makes clear it has turned the page on that ugly history.
To address the mistakes of the past, more museums should follow the lead of the MFA and theDallas Museum of Art by doing what they have done with Nazi-era paintings: proactive, transparent research into the provenance their antiquities collections.
THE AFRICAN TRADE
The Nigerian returns shed light on a branch of the illicit antiquities trade that receives relatively little attention: African art, which in the United States grew in popularity in the 1980s and – after many countries in the region had passed laws to protect their cultural heritage.
The MFA’s research concluded that all eight objects had been looted, stolen or removed from Nigeria without government permission, at times using what appeared to be falsified documents.
One of the objects was an Oron ancestral figure, or ekpu, that survived the Biafran war and was in the Oron museum as of 1970. In 2001, Teel's records show the figure was acquired by Galerie Walu in Zurich, Switzerland, now owned by Jean David. It was accompanied by a document stating that the National Commission of Museums and Monuments had waived Nigeria's ownership right to the object. The MFA contacted the commission and found that was not the case, suggesting the document was falsified. In an email, David said the object was sold by his father from his private collection, not through the gallery. David said he continues to research questions about the authenticity of the documents and has offered to get back to me with additional information.
A 13th century Yoruba portrait head sold to the Teels by Montreal gallery Lovart International was said to have been in a private collection by 1980. But the MFA's research suggests that a document allegedly signed by the former Director General of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments is not authentic. The gallery could not be reached for comment.
The Teel's Nok terracotta head (right) dating perhaps as early as 500 B.C. was said to have been found near Kaduna State, Nigeria and taken to Europe, where it was acquired by the dealer Marc Leo Felix in Brussels. In March, 1994, Felix sold it to the Teels. Felix has not yet responded to my questions about the object.
THE DAVIS GALLERY
The remaining five objects returned by the MFA came through theDavis Gallery in New Orleans. The gallery is owned by Charles Davis, a leading seller of African art since the 1970s.
A brass altar figure from the Benin people, seen at the top of his post, was apparently stolen from an ancestral altar in the Royal Palace of Benin City before the Davis Gallery acquired it in 1997. As the MFA states, "Although the figure was accompanied by documentation that appeared to authorize its sale by the chief of the guild of Benin City's brasscasters, or Igun Eronmwon, inconsistencies within the bill of sale, as well as recent correspondence from the office of the Director General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, have cast doubts upon the authenticity of this document." An 18th century Edo head, below, was also acquired by the gallery in 1990 from the Benin brass casters.
In 1994 the gallery sold a 2,000-year-old Nok sculpture (below) to the Teels on behalf of a dealer named Charles Jones. "Although documentation that appears to authorize the export of this object from Nigeria was issued in 1994, recent correspondence from the office of the Director General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, has cast doubts upon this document's authenticity," the museum found.
I recently spoke with Charles Davis about the MFA’s returns and his role in the market for African art over the years.
In the early 1970s, Davis was the director of a Virginia zoo. He and his wife Kent discovered tribal art while traveling across Africa in a Land Rover taking photos. "We traded with the pygmies, with tribes in Zaire,” he recalled. "We didn’t have money so we traded our clothes.”
Over the years, Davis "cultivated friendships with tribal people, traders, and African dealers and began to bring out fabulous objects,” recalled William Fagaly, the New Orleans Museum of Art curator of African Art, in aninterview with Antiques magazine. "At that point, everybody stood up and took notice and in short order he became a dealer's dealer, supplying work to the big boys who dominated the trade."
The business of African art was slow until the 1980s, when the opening of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art put it on the map, Davis said. "When the Met anointed it as fine art in 1981 by opening the Rockefeller Wing, the U.S. recognized it as fine art. Other than that it was worthless." (Needless to say, parts of the Rockefeller Collection were gathered under questionable circumstances.)
Davis estimates he has sold some 10,000 African objects over the years, acquired during more than 150 buying trips to Africa. He says he’s been out of the African art business since 2005, when Katrina devastated his adopted home of New Orleans, where he operates the Davis Gallery out of his 1845 Greek Revival mansion (above) on the banks of the Mississippi. The business of African art has now largely moved to Paris and Brussels, he says.
Asked about the MFA's returns, Davis is philosophical.
"I’ll take the hit," he said. "I knew it was coming. I knew we were getting politically correct that nothing should be exported, and the people be damned."
"I think the MFA has made a mistake,” he said. "To see American institutions to return a lot of the material in this political atmosphere….is going to be disastrous for these objects.” He notes unrest in the region:the terrorist group Boko Haram is active in the area; and during the Biafran war of the late 1960s, he said, a large part of the museum in Oron was looted.
"This is African language," he said. "Africa never had a real written language. Their art was their way of communicating. There are great notions like abstraction that we’ve learned from. To deny this to the rest of world would be a travesty. Without these wonderful objects, without the story being told, there would be no Pablo Picasso. To put prohibition on these things is a step way over the line."
Besides, he said, the trade in African art has greatly benefitted Africans. "The word stolen and looted is incorrect. I’ve seen Sotheby’s catalogs in remote villages. These things are sold as free expressions of their culture. They culminate in very high prices for these objects. They’re very aware of what these things are worth. Dealers like me have pumped millions of millions into Africa so they can buy the medicine they need. It’s a big enterprise and I’m proud that Africans have done extremely well. This is a renewable resource for Africa. People in Africa are very happy with the ability to sell things and realize a great benefit.”
How does Davis explain the falsified documents that apparently came with his objects? "A lot of these items have been sold by government officials. I’ve worked with very high officials who claimed to have the right to do so. I have provided those letters to people when I sold the objects."
One of the pieces, a set of Kalabari screen figures (seen above), dates from the late 19th century, he said. "There were three wooden figures owned by men’s association. They were totally not used and discarded. Someone from that region realized these people wanted to sell them and they did...they worked their way through the pipeline to me. You can return all the archaeologics you want. But to have something as recent as 20 years ago decaying, to have that returned doesn’t make sense."
Who was this middleman? "I don’t want to name the middleman...he was a government official, a member of Parliament….I’m going to protect my sources because philosophically I think they’ve done the world a great service. We’re trying to make sure these objects will survive millennia.”
A Campaign of Repatriation
Despite his opposition to the MFA's returns, Davis says he firmly believes many archaeological objects now in Western collections should eventually be returned to Africa. In the 1980s, he said he proposed a massive campaign of repatriation of antiquities to Mali.
"I wrote a book called Animal Motif. I worked hand in glove with the Musée national du Mali. They told me the French were going to help them build a museum, so I went to see Susan Vogel,” a leading Africanist in the United States.
Davis says he proposed setting up a non-profit foundation so that American collectors could return their objects while receiving a tax benefit. "If clients could donate back to the country of origin and get a tax write-off they would go for it. I think it would be a good program. They can go back to encourage collectors to donate back to the country of origin, rather than having art seized and repatriated."
But Vogel and other American museum curators discouraged him. "She thought it would not be workable,” he recalled. "Let’s watch and wait,” she told him. Others said: "Repatriation to Africa is not advised...The only thing that matters is the conservation of this art."
"We’ve been watching and waiting ever since,” Davis said. "Maybe nows the time to do it.”
Would he support such an effort?
"I’m behind it 100%. It would be nice if there’s a tax incentive to do it. I think here could be a worldwide program to encourage us to do that…I would be first to do it."
Chasing Aphrodite | July 30, 2014 at 6:00 am | Tags: African art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts,Charles Davis, Dallas Museum of Art, Davis Gallery, Galerie Walu, Jean David, Lovart International, Marc Leo Felix, Nigeria, Nok, tribal art, Victoria Reed | Categories: News | URL:http://wp.me/p1lDPb-ON
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Transfers Eight Antiquities to Nigeria
BOSTON, MA (June 26, 2014)—The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has reached an agreement with the National Commission of Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (NCMM), transferring to the Commission eight antiquities of Nigerian origin that are believed to have been the subject of illicit trafficking.
The antiquities include two Nok terracotta figures and a terracotta Ife head, archaeological materials that are known to be at high risk for theft and looting. The group also includes an ekpu, or ancestral figure dating to the 18th or 19th century, which was part of the collection of the Oron Museum, near Calabar, Nigeria, as late as the 1970s; and a bronze altar figure of about 1914, which was likely stolen from the Royal Palace in Benin City in 1976. Two terracotta heads produced in the Kingdom of Benin and a group of Kalabari screen figures appear to have been illegally exported.
The MFA received the objects in the bequest of a local collector of African art, who acquired all eight objects in good faith in the 1990s from dealers in the United States and Europe.
The Museum began the process of researching the provenance (or history of ownership) of the objects after receiving notification of the bequest. Recognizing that these eight objects were probably illegally removed from Nigeria in recent years, and that their export would have been regulated by Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments Act (chapter 242) of 1990, the MFA contacted the NCMM to seek its authorization before proceeding with their acquisition. The NCMM swiftly responded that the export of these objects had not been approved; and, indeed, that several documents which purportedly authorized their sale and export were forged. Upon receipt of this information, the MFA began to arrange for the return of the objects to Nigeria, which were received by Nigerian authorities earlier this month.
The objects transferred to Nigeria from the MFA are:
African, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Benin kingdom, about 1750
- 2.Memorial screen (duen fubara)
African, Ijaw Kalabari peoples, Nigeria, late 19th century
African, Nok peoples, Nigeria, About 500 B.C.–A.D. 200
- 4.Head of an Oba
Edo peoples, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, 19th century
- 5.Male Figure
African, Nok peoples. Nigeria, About 500 B.C.–A.D. 200
- 6.Portrait head
African, Yoruba peoples, Ife Kingdom, Nigeria, 12th–14th century
- 7.Oron Ancestral Figure (Ekpu)
Oron peoples, southeastern Nigeria
- 8.Altar figure
Benin peoples, Nigeria
The Teel Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The MFA received the eight Nigerian objects as part of the bequest from the late William E. Teel. The Teel bequest includes more than 300 African and Oceanic works, along with several Ancient American and Native American pieces and a small group of European and American works on paper. Teel and his wife Bertha, who passed away in 1995, were enthusiastic collectors who fostered appreciation of the art of sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania in Boston and beyond. The Teels built an outstanding collection, and played a significant role in placing such works in the domain of fine art in the city. As a result of their long-term support, including the endowment of a curatorial post for African and Oceanic art, the MFA has been able to significantly build its collection of African art. A selection of works from the bequest, mostly from west and central Africa, is now on view in the MFA’s recently refreshed Arts of Africa Gallery. Information regarding the eight antiquities transferred to Nigera is available atmfa.org.
Provenance Research at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The MFA is a leader in the field of provenance research, employing a full-time Curator for Provenance, who works with curators throughout the Museum to research and document the MFA’s collection on an ongoing basis. Findings are included in the Museum’s online collections database,mfa.org/collections. The MFA follows the highest standards of professional practice in regards to issues of ownership and in its response to claims for works in the collection. If research demonstrates that a work of art has been stolen, confiscated or unlawfully appropriated without subsequent restitution, then the Museum will notify potential claimants, and seek to resolve the matter in an equitable, appropriate and mutually agreeable manner. A list of ownership resolutions at the Museum since the late 1990s can be found here, mfa.org/collections/provenance/ownership-resolutions.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its encyclopedic collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum’s collection is made up of: Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 9:45 p.m. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 p.m., weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 p.m. admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The MFA’s multi-media guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.
Bring Back the Monuments Men (The Wall Street Journal)
April 13 Walking Tour in Manhattan
CHAPS and friends/family are invited to the Sunday April 13 preservation walking tour in Manhattan.
Hold the date for our last Sunday preservation walking tour on April 13. We will begin at 10 AM with the tour starting at the Villard houses in Manhattan ( 455 Madison Avenue. between 50 and 51st streets ).This tour is led by Tony Robbins, a preservationist, author, and professional tour guide.. Tony is terrific and the tour will take us to “landmark “ preservation buildings in central Manhattan ( air rights transfer from the Villard houses, the legal issues involving the designated St Bartholomew’s Church, the designation of the Lever/Seagram buildings, and the history and preservation of Grand Central Terminal ( GCT ). The tour ends about noon at GCT. All students , family and friends are invited and this is an outstanding opportunity to have fun and learn about preservation. There is a $ 15 per person charge for the tour. (This amount incorporates a Bloustein subsidy as Robbins charges for his time.)
Forum UNESCO Announcement
This two year master’s degree program (30 credits) emphasizes the development of a broad understanding of heritage contexts and policies along with development of professional skills through seminars and directed internships. Its aim is to train students in theoretical and practical approaches to cultural heritage conservation, specifically the monuments, sites, objects and inherited practices that constitute the tangible and intangible remains of the past.
The program is multidisciplinary and cross-cultural in emphasis. Faculty includes both academics from a variety of disciplines and heritage professionals. Courses are also offered through CHAPS Abroad, emphasizing interaction with faculty and professionals within the host country. A major focus is practical professional experiences, which includes internship or fieldwork with an appropriate cultural institution, firm, or governmental/non-governmental agency. Opportunities are available at local, national and international levels, and reflect the student's area of focus.
As an affiliated member of the Project Forum UNESCO – University and Heritage, CHAPS is globally focused and committed to working in collaboration with UNESCO for the protection, conservation and enhancement of cultural heritage through joint research and education initiatives.
Application to the program is competitive and open to students with a bachelor degree and strong interest in cultural heritage studies, regardless of field. Applicants with related professional experience are welcome to apply.
For application materials: http://www.rutgers.edu/admissions/graduate-admissions