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MFA returns looted sculpture to Italy

German troops likely stole ‘Portrait of a man,’ circa 3rd or 4th century C.E., during WWII

Abby Hykin, Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation, and Victoria Reed, Monica S. Sadler Senior Curator for Provenance, examined "Portrait of a man" before it was packed at the Museum of Fine Arts in February.© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Samuel Putnam Avery Fund

The Museum of Fine Arts plans to announce Monday the return of a looted marble sculpture to Italy, where Nazi troops likely stole the object during World War II, the Globe has learned.

Known as “Portrait of a man,” the badly damaged sculpture of a head dates from the third or fourth century C.E. and may represent emperor Maximianus Herculius. It was excavated in late 1931 as part of a joint archeological project in Minturno, Italy, by the University of Pennsylvania and the Superintendency of Campania in Naples.

The sculpture was one of numerous archeological finds researchers inventoried and published in a catalog of works from the excavations in 1938.


Victoria Reed, the MFA’s curator for provenance, said there was widespread looting of archeological storage facilities around Minturno during the Second World War. She added that while they can’t say for certain German troops were responsible for the theft, there is “copious circumstantial evidence” that it disappeared during the war.

“There was so much looting at that particular town,” she said. “We don’t know exactly how this left, or when, but it is most likely during that time.”

When the museum purchased the sculpture from a Swiss gallery in 1961, the nose, which had been intact upon excavation, was missing. The antiquity also carried no provenance, or collecting history.

"Portrait of a man," which may represent Emperor Maximianus Herculius Roman, dates to the third or fourth century C.E..© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Samuel Putnam Avery Fund

“They didn’t, of course, do any extensive due diligence, but I don’t think that they knew it came from this particular site at the time they acquired it,” said Reed.

She noted the MFA had the sculpture on view from 2000 until 2008, adding that it was also exhibited at Brandeis University in 1969 and again at the MFA in 1977.

In July 2019, however, Irene Bald Romano, a professor at the University of Arizona, notified the MFA that the artifact had disappeared during World War II.


“It was pretty clearly Italian property as something that had been scientifically excavated and published” in the 1938 catalog, said Reed, who wrote to the Italian Ministry of Culture that fall. “They confirmed that it had been removed illegally and was Italian state property.”

After the MFA’s board of trustees voted to deaccession the work, the museum finalized the paperwork in December 2021, before retuning the object to Italy earlier this year.

The return marks the third time this year the MFA has announced a restitution.

In January, the museum announced the return of a Dutch painting looted during the Second World War, and in February the MFA returned a pair of antiquities to the Republic of Mali.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him @malcolmgay.