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Worcester Art Museum accused of housing window stolen from France’s famed Rouen Cathedral

Museum says it has ‘never been contacted regarding this work of art’

A French heritage association is calling for the return of a 13th-century stained-glass window in the Worcester Art Museum's collection. Messengers from Ephesus before Emperor Theodosius II (Episode from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus), 1200-1210, pot-metal glass and vitreous paint.Worcester Art Museum

A French heritage association has accused the Worcester Art Museum of illegally possessing a 13th-century stained-glass window it says was stolen from the famed Rouen Cathedral in northern France.

According to a report in Ouest-France, the Paris-based Lumière sur le Patrimoine association filed a complaint with prosecutors in Rouen last month seeking restitution of the window from the Worcester museum, along with similar windows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pa.

“Stained glass thefts were committed within Rouen Cathedral at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the following century,” the association’s president, Philippe Machicote, is quoted as saying in the French-language report. “Smuggled through the Parisian market, these stained glass windows ended up in the hands of American collectors and, after their death, in museums.”

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The windows depict the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, in which persecuted Christians fall into a deep slumber, awakening years later under the rule of a Christian emperor.

In a statement to the Globe Friday, WAM said it has “never been contacted regarding this work of art.”

“The Worcester Art Museum takes its curatorial and ethical responsibilities towards its collection very seriously,” WAM stated, adding that the museum “acquired the stained-glass window at a public sale in 1921.” “If the Museum receives information or a claim, we will consider it carefully and in compliance with best practices.”

According to a 2019 essay by art historian Michael Cothren, the Rouen windows, which had been significantly altered over the years, were placed in storage during the mid-19th century to make way for new neo-Gothic windows.

From “this new, not-so-safe dépôt panels began to leave for the art market,” wrote Cothren, who noted that stained-glass expert Jean Lafond discovered “many losses” from the storeroom as early as 1911.

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Collector Henry C. Lawrence bought four of the windows in 1918, according to Cothren, which would later “end up at Glencairn and the Worcester Art Museum.”

Ouest-France reported that the association argues the windows should be returned because they are “inalienable national treasures” of France.

Stained-glass expert Virginia Raguin said the fate of the Rouen windows is well known in academic circles.

“These are public monuments,” she said. “How do you get artworks in a public monument into the private art market without some sort of collusion between the people responsible for taking care of them and dealers?”

Machicote told the French paper his association wants the windows returned to France, adding that Lafond wrote about the losses in the 1970s.

“American museums have known since 1972 that these are stolen,” he told the paper, adding that he is “reporting a known story, but one that has yet to find its happy conclusion.”

Last year, the Manhattan district attorney’s office seized an ancient bronze bust valued at $5 million from the Worcester museum as part of a broader investigation. The episode prompted the museum to pledge it would hire a provenance research specialist and increase “scrutiny of its existing collection.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him @malcolmgay.