This spring in the Netherlands, a curator from the Museum of Fine Arts spotted a 17th-century gold medallion at the famed Maastricht art fair and knew she had to have it. There was just one problem: Nobody could tell her how the precious piece left Germany after World War II.
Enter Victoria Reed, the MFA’s curator of provenance. Her job, which is almost as rare in the museum world as is the medallion, is to research works with questionable histories both in the collection and on the MFA’s shopping list. As a result, Reed’s other job is to break curators’ hearts.
Through months of research, Reed traced the medallion to a museum in Gotha, Germany, that she knew had been looted during the Nazi era. With that information, the MFA’s jewelry curator, Yvonne Markowitz, put the brakes on its purchase. And in September, the Art Loss Register announced that S.J. Phillips Ltd., the dealer who had offered the medallion, would be returning it to the Castle Friedenstein museum.
“It shows our system is working,’’ said Reed. “It’s much better learning the information before than after this becomes a part of the collection.’’
That’s a polite way of explaining her role, which is to make sure the MFA is not embroiled in any of the controversies that have swirled through the museum world in the last decade. In this new era, museums discovered to be holding stolen items face lawsuits and claims from foreign governments that can be costly both in legal fees and in the court of public opinion.
The MFA, which like many museums has had to return works in recent years, took special care in creating Reed’s post in 2010. She is the first and only endowed curator of provenance at an American museum.
In the past, the MFA had conducted research the same way many museums do. Individual curators with expertise in a specific area were asked to do research between their other duties, whether organizing exhibits or acquiring new works. Across the country, a handful of other museum professionals research the histories of artworks as independent consultants or as one of the tasks that make up their jobs.
“It’s something we can’t do constantly the way Victoria Reed is,’’ says Martha Wolff, the curator of European painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Why is that? Time pressures.’’
Another issue is resources. What makes Reed special in the museum world is that her position, funded by MFA donor Monica S. Sadler, will not be cut from the museum’s budget when finances are tight.
“That a patron of the MFA recognized the importance of the issue makes Torie’s position unique,’’ said Nancy Yeide, the head of curatorial records at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. “That’s quite noteworthy and hopefully an impetus for others to do likewise.’’
A mystery story
Reed doesn’t spend all her time in libraries, scouring old auction catalogs. She also serves as the public face of the MFA’s efforts to properly vet art works.
One summer weekday, a group of college students, most of them art history majors, crowded around Reed in a gallery as she spun a fascinating, true tale involving Nazis, art dealers, and stolen paintings. It was like a mystery story, with the art detective hunting for clues.
Afterward, several approached with questions. Asked why they were so inspired, they didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t just the story. It was Reed herself.
Just 37, Reed, who goes by the first name “Torie,’’ is no dour researcher in Coke-bottle glasses. She is lively and easy to approach, an avid runner who favors colorful dresses and heels.
“You meet a lot of curators who aren’t ready to share why they’re so excited about what they do,’’ said Caitlin Costello, 21, an undergraduate majoring in art history at the University of Pennsylvania. “Just smiling and being animated, it’s amazing how much that helps get her message across.’’
The timing of Reed’s talk couldn’t have been better. Just a few days earlier, eight years of off-and-on research had culminated in the MFA’s dramatic announcement of recognition that “Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior,’’ an oil painting on a wood panel by the 17th-century Dutch painter Eglon van der Neer, had probably been stolen by the Nazis and passed through a New York gallery before ending up at the MFA in 1941.
The museum agreed to pay restitution to the heir of Jewish art dealer Walter Westfeld, who died in a Nazi death camp, and in exchange, the painting would remain on the MFA’s walls. The finding would give the museum a chance to show the world that it cared deeply about righting the wrongs of the past, when swashbuckling curators acquired paintings and sculptures without doing in-depth research on whether they had been stolen.
Standing in front of the painting in the MFA’s Art of Europe department, Reed told the students of her satisfaction in being able to shed light on an important era in history. Through her work, the public will now know about Westfeld, she said. A lengthy description of the painting’s path would hang on the wall next to the picture.
‘Geeky’ path to curatorship
Growing up outside Portland, Maine, Reed was an artsy and bookish kid.
Her younger sister, Mary Reed, still teases her for what she calls a geeky streak. To satisfy her physical education requirement, Torie Reed took part in a walking club. While other teenagers were out partying, Reed took language lessons at an Italian heritage center. When she was 16, she traveled to Siena, where she worked on watercolors.
“I joke that she’s always been an old lady,’’ says Mary Reed. “She’s more grown up than anybody else.’’
Torie Reed’s path to the MFA started at Sarah Lawrence College, where she earned her degree before getting her master’s and a doctorate in art history at Rutgers University. After college, Reed worked as a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, after that, served as a researcher at the Princeton University Art Museum.
She started at the MFA in 2003, hired as a research fellow for provenance in the Art of Europe department to look entirely at Nazi-era issues. It was an opportune time. Just a few years earlier, museum leaders had met in Washington, D.C., in a groundbreaking conference, to create the first real push for restitution for World War II thefts.
The MFA, like most US museums, had followed the common acquire-now, research-later philosophy of collecting. But in 2000, it took a dramatic step to address that. The museum put a list of works from its permanent collection with questionable acquisition histories on the Internet in a quest to solicit more information. That turned heads in the museum world. It also led victimized families, including the Westfelds, to contact the MFA.
“Most museums have their collections online,’’ says James Cuno, the former director of the Harvard University Art Museums and current director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “What’s different in this case, and is to be commended, is that they identified some works and set them apart from others.’’
That’s where Reed’s job began. Working on Nazi-era claims, she found her knowledge of Italian, German, and French was helpful. So was her determination to pursue all leads, whether in the MFA’s archives or by traveling to Germany to scour rarely viewed auction records and newspaper articles.
During those years, Reed decided that the World War II cases were, in a way, more complicated than those involving works dating to Roman times.
“If something was looted out of the ground in Italy, it’s a pretty clear issue,’’ she said. “Some of the Nazi-era claims are accompanied by ownership questions that may not have a paper trail. Many of the key players may be deceased. You may be dealing with 10 different archives. And even if you have the pieces lined up, there many be disagreement about how to interpret those facts.’’
The facts were often undeniable. Under Reed, the MFA resolved several claims, starting in 2004 when the museum returned to a Polish woman a 15th-century Polish painting, “Virgin and Child,’’ that Reed determined had been plundered during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 before being purchased by the MFA in 1970. Later, the MFA returned a statue stolen in Dresden, Germany, and an embroidered panel from Italy and, after making restitutions, held on to a group of 17th-century tapestries and the van der Neer.
A detective with critics
Not all of Reed’s research has resulted in guilty verdicts.
The MFA fought to keep an Oskar Kokoschka painting, “Two Nudes (Lovers),’’ after a claim was filed in 2007 by an Austrian woman. After reviewing Reed’s research, the MFA decided it had legal title to the work and even filed a lawsuit, which it won in 2009, to confirm its rights.
That led to something Reed had never faced as a behind-the-scenes player: criticism.
Raymond Dowd, a New York lawyer who has filed lawsuits over works that he maintains were taken by the Nazis, disagreed with the Kokoschka finding, particularly as it affected another case he was pursuing. On his website earlier this year, Dowd called Reed “a curator of provenance - which happens to be a synonym for a launderer of stolen artworks.’’
In an interview, Dowd refused to back down. He said the MFA and Reed should publish online the details of their investigations. He believes the MFA is, like the entire US museum community, reluctant to reach out to victims of World War II-era art looting.
“What happened in Vienna in 1938 and 1939, you either believe in the Holocaust that took place in that period and the grip that Adolph Eichmann had on those people or you’re an American museum denying that reality,’’ he said. “And she’s at the forefront of that denial.’’
Dowd’s attack bothered her deeply, Reed acknowledges, but she refuses to counterattack.
“I know that I sound defensive and I’m trying, as I get older, to sound less defensive,’’ she said. “But I think there are a lot of loud voices out there that are inaccurate.’’
The next day, Reed asks that even that mild criticism be struck from the record. She doesn’t want to come off too strong.
She does defend the MFA, which she says shares the results of all its Nazi-era provenance research on its website, on gallery labels, and in gallery talks. The only exception is when there is a legal matter that includes correspondence that is privileged.
Her understated approach is typical of Reed. She wants the evidence from her research to speak for itself without telling her boss, MFA deputy director Katherine Getchell, how to respond.
That makes perfect sense to Getchell.
“Her job is not to be a policymaker or decision maker,’’ said Getchell. “We want her focused on research and analysis and looking at the different options.’’
Reed’s job often takes her to the MFA’s off-site library at Horticultural Hall. On a recent afternoon, she sat with her notes at a table examining art history books on site. She wants to know more about a Dutch painting by Johannes Glauber, which the museum acquired from a dealer in 1979 with little knowledge of its background. She was examining a bronze from the 13th century that’s in the MFA’s Islamic art collection. There were also several works the museum was considering acquiring; she said she couldn’t reveal what those were.
“In the ’40s and ’50s, we might ask a dealer where something came from,’’ she said. “Today, we require much more information. We look at cultural property law, check stolen art databases, import and export records. If there’s a doubt, we postpone acquisition until we can clear up the question.’’
Reed shuffled through the papers on the desk as the subject of the van der Neer came up. Though the claim had been settled, many questions remained. The MFA knows the painting was probably stolen, but there’s a gap in the records from the point when it disappeared in the late 1930s to its reappearance in New York in 1941. Reed was eager to fill in the blank.
“In this work,’’ she said, “you’re never done.’’
This is the third in a series of occasional articles on the complex issues surrounding some works in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.